Swiss Army Man : A Retrospective
By Claire Pak
I first encountered Swiss Army Man in an article last year. It reported that there was a constant stream of walkouts at the screening of the film at the Sundance Film Festival, after a scene where Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse farts its way across the ocean like a motorboat.
It’s true. This movie has Daniel Radcliffe’s farting corpse jet-skiing across the ocean. That enough should sell you on it, but in case it doesn’t, it’s also a movie that has a lot of heart and a lot of love for even the most disgusting parts of the human body.
Swiss Army Man, written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, is indeed often hilarious and joyfully absurd and has more than its fair share of flatulence and sex. But it is also an empathetic portrait of a man struggling with self-loathing and crippling regrets. This is, after all, a movie that opens with cries for help, scrawled messily on plastic bottles, drifting aimlessly through the sea. As far as we can tell, nobody sees them, and nobody swoops into the rescue. Hank (played by Paul Dano) is stranded and alone, his messages soon to be swallowed up by the waves.
Of course, this is the moment that Daniel Radcliffe’s talking corpse — named Manny — washes up on the shore and throws things into disarray.
Really though, the weird bodily humor both gives the film its eccentric charm and while pursuing its themes. After all, how much of our body is disgusting? Farts certainly are, and anything to do with sex is usually considered too embarrassing or juvenile to openly talk about. Here, though, there’s something a childlike glee in the way Manny discovers his body for the first time and the emotional honesty that he and Hank share in figuring themselves out again, far away from the rest of civilization and any sort of embarrassment. The film wants you to know that everything about you is worthwhile. Even the farting bits.
Daniel Radcliffe has had an eccentric career path, post-Harry Potter. His performance here somehow captures the wide-eyed innocence of a person who literally just got introduced to the world while basically still having the complexion and body control of a corpse. For someone who is literally a farting corpse for the runtime, he manages to be extremely likable. There’s something sweet in watching Manny discovering for the first time all the odd stuff your body does on a natural basis. Paul Dano, meanwhile, straddles that line between well-meaning but extremely self-conscious man and guy-who-might-be-making-this-all-up-in-his-head. Their chemistry together is integral to the film — they are the only characters for most of the runtime, after all — and they sell that awkward but freeing intimacy of two strangers alone together in the woods.
Being the self-conscious person that I am, I can’t help but cringe a little watching farts filmed with lovely cinematography and occasional slow-motion. But Swiss Army Man has managed to do the improbable by injecting gas and boner jokes with pathos and real emotional stakes. That’s more than enough to give the movie the credit it deserves: it succeeds not in spite of its somewhat disgusting body humor, but because of it.