You can’t have a dignified suicide if the score is provided by a flatulent corpse. It simply can’t be done. So Hank gives up on the suicide thing and instead, rides his new corpse-pal as a fart propellor across the waters to freedom.
Or does he?
Manny (Daniel Radcliffe), Hank’s (Paul Dano) new dead friend, doesn’t just provide a jet-fuelled vessel with which to cross the waters. He can shoot projectiles, provide water on demand, start fires, break tree trunks, and more. Most importantly, he can talk. Manny and Hank’s friendship blossoms as they try to learn about the man Manny was before he died and find their way back to civilisation.
‘People don’t like other people’s farts.’
Swiss Army Man is a story of loneliness, friendship, and mental illness. Hell, it’s about everything in life: love, family, loss, the imagination… I can certainly see why some people found the film tedious. After they stop laughing at fart jokes (What are you, dead inside? Fart jokes will always be funny.), the premise starts to wear a little thin. There are two men alone together for almost a full 90 minutes. But I loved it. Perhaps the issue is that it felt more like theatre. It was intimate and beautiful, but it certainly wasn’t action-packed or plot-driven. This is a character and a think piece. It’s a philosophical musing on life. Why do we want to be part of civilisation when we can’t be ourselves there? Why can’t we fart in public? Let’s stay out here in the woods and fart as much as we want to!
We do what we need to in order to survive. Our brains have some kind of override mechanism to abort the self-destruct command. Sometimes, our automatic responses know better than our thinking brain does. Hank’s brain saves him by creating Manny, by giving him something to live for again: friendship. Thankfully, the film never obfuscates the truth, thus avoiding the common problem of films like this thinking they are cleverer than they are. You aren’t ever meant to question the reality of Manny. The audience knows what he is; the intrigue comes from seeing how Hank works through his own issues and to get to the bottom of how he ended up there.
‘This is what fear looks like.’
The quirky premise of the film is grounded by the naturalist setting and unobtrusive direction. The world around Hank is so very ordinary, full of rubbish and dirt. As a result, a film that could easily have spiralled into the ridiculous manages to stay within the realms of bittersweet commentary on real life. It is this focus on the simple things and the attention to detail that set the film apart. One of the most moving moments of the film is when Manny joins Hank to hum along to John Williams’ classic theme from Jurassic Park. It’s like a moment from a romcom. Where the two characters realise they have a lot in common. But for Hank, this is a sign that he is not alone. New writers out there should pay attention here. This was a perfect example of ‘show don’t tell’.
Amongst all this philosophy there’s plenty of low-brow, everyday thoughts and discussions to make sure the film doesn’t become too obscure or irritating. Outside of the farting, there’s also a great examination of sexual desire, masturbation, and the arbitrary taboos society places on such things. Manny tries to understand the concept of masturbation. If it makes you happy, why don’t you do it all the time, he wonders. It’s a good question, that. When Manny wants to know more – whether women masturbate, how you masturbate, what should you masturbate to – Hank clams up, telling Manny it isn’t right to talk about such things. By focusing the commentary on specifics, such as the guilt often associated with teenage masturbation, the film is able to make much wider statements about life. Why do we have taboos about any of it – farting, masturbating, talking about mental illness?
Verdict: This film won’t be for everyone. But if you enjoy watching a contemplative piece of cinema that is both well written and acted, Swiss Army Man is certainly an interesting experience.