Through a fixation on what we shouldn't talk about, Swiss Army Man brings a dialogue to everything we should talk about. A touching, hilarious film with a soft and meaningful centre.
Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s surrealist film Swiss Army Man has caused a stir in the cinematic world since it was branded as ‘the farting corpse movie.’ Whilst it is definitely a movie centred around a farting corpse, I was pleasantly surprised at how much more it had to offer behind its mysterious methane clouds. Starring the now-officially-grown-up Daniel Radcliffe and the ever-wonderful Paul Dano, the film is a testament to quirky indie cinema. It’s repulsive, it’s endearing, and it’s a joy to watch – a refreshing take on society from someone who doesn’t quite fit into it.
Opening with pieces of rubbish floating on an ocean, we see the scribblings of a castaway engraved into tossed juice cartons; revealing a helpless, lonely and desperate stranger stranded at sea. We soon find out this is the dishevelled Hank (Paul Dano), and he has had enough of his isolation on a forgotten island. Preparing to hang himself in front of a cave, he spots a body washed up onto the shore – but not before he has plummeted to his ill-timed fate. Fortunately, the rope snaps and Hank goes to investigate the corpse (Daniel Radcliffe), believing he has arrived for a reason, namely to end his loneliness and desperation. The corpse farts in response. Hank resigns himself to suicide once more as his heart-felt comments are returned with farce, only to see Radcliffe shaking and quivering from the gas built up inside him in some mock revival of life – he even starts zipping through the water like a turbulent power boat. Hank sees his chance. Utilising the corpse’s bottom as a jet-ski across the ocean, Hank rides Radcliffe like a frivolous dolphin out to freedom. It is here that Swiss Army Man begins.
The two wash up on a different shore (but this one has Cheese Puffs and signs of human life), and make their way into the nearby forest to start on getting back to civilisation. Hank lugs Radcliffe into a new cave, corks his noisy butt and decides to name him Manny; treating him as his new best (or rather, only) friend. As the film goes on, Manny starts speaking – much to Hank’s terror and jubilation – and his body takes on amazing attributes that turn him into the titular multipurpose tool. If you press him, he spits out fresh drinking water, if you peel his arm back, he turns into a jack hammer. Shove something into his mouth hard enough and he’ll shoot it back out like a loaded rifle; and so on. The only problem is he doesn’t remember anything about his life before death, so Hank takes it upon himself to teach him about society and the ‘do’s and don’ts’ that he has had to live by. It’s a heartwarming story of love, friendship, and the underdog – one that completely takes you by surprise when it isn’t laughing at it’s own bodily functions.
Yes, a lot of the film is about uncomfortable boners and awkward farts, but isn’t it freeing for such normal things to be seen as exactly that; normal? The underlying question of ‘why do we hold our farts in around other people, especially those we love’ seems to underpin the movie. A strange metaphor, but a metaphor nonetheless – why is it that we present hidden, restricted and warped version of ourselves to society instead of just being ourselves? Manny’s unapologetic naivety and presentation of all things lewd and ‘disgusting’ opens a discourse on why we feel the way we do about such things. We listen to Hank’s life story of repression and self-hate because he feels ‘weird,’ and pity him. Manny is the student that turns into the teacher – he is the outside view of a painfully rigid society that tells us it’s okay to be ourselves, we shouldn’t be embarrassed of anything that everyone else experiences. The directors have created something truly special and different; something that had to take a step outside of our expectations and point out why they’re wrong. It breaks a thousand boundaries and isn’t sorry for doing so.
One of the reasons the directors manage to get away with such a strange concept and not completely ostracise the audience is by masterfully manipulating filmic techniques. Arguably the most impressive feature of the film was the use of loop tracks from Hank’s opening scene, where the characters say something or make a noise that becomes repeated non-diegetically into the soundtrack. Their own feelings and utterances become the basis of what creates emotion in the music – which is a wonderfully unique idea. As for cinematography, the shots are composed beautifully; nature reigns supreme and the wilderness is captured in a fascinating, freeing way that reflects the movie’s true heart. The comedic timing is perfectly on-beat, and the transformation from useless to useful of all things ‘trash’ is so wonderful it could bring you to tears.
Overall, Swiss Army Man is a touching insight into what it means to be human, and by extension what it means to be alive. It takes all the things we discard, all the things we dislike and all the things we hide and brings them out into the light – warts and all – to be celebrated and reclaimed. Although unavoidably cringey in some aspects, and occasionally pushing a joke maybe one scene too far, it remains an excellent piece of original cinema that stands out against the masses. It’s one of those films you won’t forget, and it’s one everyone should see at some point.
Swiss Army Man, directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, featured at Sydney Film Festival 2016.