Swiss Army Man is a film which revels in its own weirdness. In a sense, it is a film which defies description. Every now and then something so wildly imaginative emerges that we simply lack the proper language to do it justice. Film is a visual medium after all, and this is one film that needs to be seen before it can be fairly judged. Surreal, absurd, hilarious, enigmatic, touching, and philosophical, Swiss Army Man inconceivably reconciles fart jokes and awkward boners with an occasionally profound commentary on the nature of life.
The film’s premise is perhaps its greatest barrier of entry. Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a deserted island and is on the brink of suicide. His attempt to hang himself is interrupted by a mostly dead, surprisingly flatulent corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washing up on the shore. Upon discovering that his new companion is dead, he remarks sadly, “You know, I… I had always hoped that right before I die my life would flash before my eyes and I would see wonderful things… A life full of parties and friends and… and how I’d learned to play the guitar, and… and maybe there’d even be a girl. But as I was hanging up there…
…I didn’t really see much of anything. But I did see you.” His soliloquy is constantly interrupted by his companion’s farts, which in due time carry the body out into the surf. Gripped by sudden inspiration, Hank jumps onto the body and, propelled by its gas, rides it to freedom like a jet ski. And so begins his surrealist journey of self discovery.
At this point you are either on board for the ride or you’ve thrown your hands up in disgust. If you’re the type of person that demands internal logic from a story in order to enjoy it, you will be sorely disappointed. Swiss Army Man has no interest in presenting a conventional narrative, or even a coherent message. This is a film steeped in visual metaphor which must be carefully distilled to extract meaning. If you are feeling adventurous, then you may discover that there is a lot going on here beneath the film’s strange fixation on bodily functions.
Perhaps best described as poetry in motion, the film unfolds like a stream of consciousness – flitting from one idea to the next as its imagery flows over the audience. There are many concepts and themes at play in this film, but two of the most prominent are these: one, there is a difference between being alive and living; two, all of our meaningless, worthless lives have immeasurable intrinsic value. The developing relationship between Hank and the dead body, Manny provides the vehicle through which the film explores these themes.
Hank and Manny are mirror images of each other. Hank’s past experiences are empty and lifeless. He has been lonely, isolated and filled with regret for the chances he never took and the experiences he never had. He is still alive, but dead inside. Manny is the exact opposite. He is a corpse in which life miraculously still resides. He is filled with unbridled potential and undiscovered capabilities – the Swiss Army Man. Though apparently broken and useless, within him resides the power to do anything. As their journey progresses, Hank instills in Manny a zest for life which he himself long ago lost. Hank, who was on the verge of taking his own life, instead returns life to a dead man. In a sense, they were both dead, and it is only their friendship which makes them truly live again.
The landscape the duo traverse further informs the film’s commentary about life. Despite being lost in forested wilds, the ground is littered with trash and garbage – all the broken, smelly, unwanted, unloved things cast out by society. It is a wasteland of the dispossessed, a reflection of our characters’ self perception. “So I’m like trash?” asks Manny. “No, you’re different…you’re special” replies Hank. As Hank endeavors to help Manny rediscover what it means to be alive, he uses the seemingly endless array of trash to construct makeshift sets, props, and costumes which help him reenact his life experiences in pantomime.
The memories he shares, so often tinged with melancholy and regret are shared through a medium composed of garbage, yet they are perceived by the reawakened corpse with wonder. With almost childlike enthusiasm and inquisitiveness, Manny finds within himself a passion for life, even the worthless and mundane parts of it. The discarded detritus together with Hank’s memories weave a beautiful tapestry of new experiences which comprise their burgeoning friendship. The two find worth in each other’s worthlessness.
It is from this revelation that one of the film’s more powerful themes is derived: we are all trash. We are all of us broken, smelly, unwanted things mixing and jostling around in this big milieu we call life. And it is out of this chaotic garbage heap that we build our experiences, our relationships, the things that make us happy. And that is something beautiful. It is Manny who has the epiphany, “maybe we’re all just ugly, dying sacks of shit, and maybe all it’ll take is one person to just be okay with that, and then the whole world will be dancing and singing and farting, and everyone will feel a little bit less alone.”
Swiss Army Man certainly will not be for everyone, but for those willing to take a leap of faith it provides a strangely uplifting story. It is a film about self discovery. It is a film about untapped potential. It is a film about the immeasurable value of the broken, the forgotten, and the dispossessed. It is a film about the metaphorical journey that we all take through life. It is a film about a farting corpse whose boner points the way home. Cast aside doubt and embrace the weird. This film just works.