Swiss Army Man is the kind of movie in which a portion of the audience will stick it out for about 10 minutes, nervously laughing at first, then muttering about how stupid the movie is so that their friends or family can hear their disgust, before they ultimately bully them into leaving (and wasting their 15 bucks). Those ringleaders are almost always men, either middle aged or in their late teens. Swiss Army Man almost taunts its audience to stick it out. Those who are willing to go with the flow and don’t mind the idea of Daniel Radcliffe playing a farting corpse will ultimately be rewarded.
Paul Dano plays Hank, a man who has been shipwrecked long enough to grow a scraggly beard. He’s been living on a small island in the Pacific since he sank his boat and has given up all hope of rescue. He’s about to hang himself when first introduced, but a body washes ashore and makes him put the suicide on hold. Daniel Radcliffe plays Manny, the body. Hank is at first happy enough to have a corpse than he can chat with to assuage his loneliness, but then he realizes that Manny is special. The body has been building up gases and starts to fart with violent force. It’s enough that Hank can tie up Manny like a raft and ride his ass across the ocean to the mainland.
The image of Paul Dano riding Daniel Radcliffe’s farting corpse is absurd (and hilarious), but also strangely poignant. Hank is someone who obviously hasn’t experienced joy in quite some time, and the look on his face as he sails away to freedom with his new corpse pal is touching. Once on the mainland, Hank realizes that Manny is a multipurpose utility man: he can store water, chop wood, or shoot pebbles out of his mouth when given the Heimlich maneuver.
Then Manny starts to come alive. His twitches evolve into speaking. Manny doesn’t seem to remember anything from his previous life, except the theme from Jurassic Park, which makes an appearance at moments of triumph. “If you don’t know about Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit,” Hanks tells him.
Swiss Army Man is about two men learning how to live with love, and also coming to terms with their love for each other. Hank is obsessed with Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a woman whom he has only watched from afar. When Manny sees her picture on Hank’s phone he instantly falls in love with her and thinks that she must be someone he knew before he died. Both men are trying to get home to find this fantasy lover, but their friendship and affections turn into a kind of love as they come to rely on each other. When Hank falls into a river, he’s able to use Manny’s mouth like a scuba tank, but his sucking for air also doubles as a kiss and acknowledgement of their feelings.
Their trip through the woods to civilization is fun and charming, full of life. The film’s use of music and sound is one of its strengths; Dano and Radcliffe both sing minimalistic, repetitive patterns that metamorphose into the film’s score. Radcliffe farts also seamlessly mix with the music. It’s an impressive blending of sound and music.
The film falters briefly at the end, once Hank and Manny finally find Sarah’s house (led by Manny’s penis, which happens to be a compass that points them toward their destination). When Manny realizes that Sarah is married and has a child and will never have a relationship with him, he falls into a depression and dies, again. Manny’s second death is heartbreaking. Shane Carruth plays a small part as a coroner, which made me think of his masterpiece, Upstream Color. That film was an incredibly beautiful, and often quite sad film, and Swiss Army Man seems to borrow a bit of that sadness. However, once other actors enter the film, directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert temporarily lose control. Winstead seems lost in the action, and the other actors can’t match the tone that Dano and Radcliffe have already set for the first hour.
The film ends with Hank stealing Manny’s body in hopes of reviving it. In a moment of anger, Manny had complained that Hank hid himself from Manny, never being willing to fart or openly express himself in his presence. Manny loved Hank enough to be his true self, but Hank wasn’t able to reciprocate. As he’s about to be led away in handcuffs by the police, Hank lets loose a fart, which reinvigorates Manny. His own fart machine starts to fire up, and he shoots down the beach and sails away across the sea, perhaps to start a new life.
Such a silly move could have wrecked any other film, but it fits into the twisted emotional mindset of Swiss Army Man. Hank and Manny are unfulfilled in their infatuations with Sarah, and their own romance seems to have ended, but the film ends with the sense that they might be able to start afresh now. They’ve found a new love for life, and that’s a start.