Movies, of course, do not have to be rational. They never are, actually, but they typically aspire to verisimilitude—or at least a worldview the audience can accept for seven reels. Even speculative fiction (horror, fantasy, sci-fi) tends to set up a certain number of rules within which the story operates in an otherwise recognizable way. When a movie tries to get outside that box, it’s in danger of becoming pretentious or just plain incomprehensible. At times, it can be hard to figure out what Swiss Army Man is trying to tell us but it neatly avoids pretentiousness with copious fart jokes. This movie is powered by fart jokes. Its main character, Hank (Paul Dano, Love & Mercy, Being Flynn) is literally powered by farts provided by the decaying corpse of “Manny” (Daniel Radcliffe, Horns, Woman In Black).
I am not a fart joke aficionado, personally, but a funny thing happens here. Flatulence goes through numerous interpretations as the movie wears on: It’s a dumb joke, it’s a dark joke, it’s a matter of joy, it’s a matter of tragedy, it’s a critical plot point, and on and on, to where you’re sort of wondering “How are they gonna fart their way out of this one?” It’s impossible to watch this and get the idea that they were just telling fart jokes. Something else, something much deeper, in fact, is going on, and the Daniels (the writer/director team of Dan Kwan, Daniel Schienert) are using noxious bodily gases to keep from straying into the pretentiousness almost inherent in a story about a man stranded on a desert island with only a corpse to help him survive.
Hank is a sad, desperate man both literally and metaphorically cut off from contact with others. When another person washes ashore on the same beach, he’s initially excited at the prospect of having company, only to find out the other person is just a corpse. But the corpse moves a little, as decaying corpses will, and of course releases the carbon and sulfur gases that provide the necessary…momentum…to keep the story moving. Hank calls his new pal “Manny”, and as the movie wears on Manny’s abilities become more and more uncorpselike. He’s slowly animated, not just by farts, but by Hank’s vesting of himself into him.
At points, it even gets hard to tell Hank and Manny apart. The corpse becomes not just a vehicle for literal escape (insofar as anything here is actually literal) but for Hank’s escape from the failures of his life. Hank puts his failures onto Manny and in this way has a chance to confront them—because, of course, it’s easier to look at someone else’s flaws than one’s own, and especially easier to look at someone’s flaws when they’re just like yours. Hank’s in a desperate place, quite apart from being trapped on an island (or is he?), and it’s occasionally not clear whether we’re seeing things through his eyes or through Manny’s. (Although, since Manny is literally dead, to the extent he literally exists at all, it’s probably safe to assume it’s all Hank.) Pretty spiritual, heady stuff for what’s billed as a “quirky comedy”.
The farts keep it from disappearing up its own ass, if you will.
This is one of those movies you don’t know whether you’re going to like it or not, or at least we didn’t. There are so many ways it could go wrong. Sort of weirdly, Audiences liked it rather more than critics (82%/67% respectively) which can either be attributed to rabid Harry Potter fans and/or the very earthiness that keeps it things from being too abstract, top pretentious, too boring. The Boy and I were both favorably impressed; there’s a level of skill in the filmmaking, and a care and attention to detail that can win you over if you’re not too put off by the grossness of the bodily aspects (which include more than farts, I should note).
It’s a two-man show, basically, so if you like Dano or Radcliffe—who does graduate from lolling his head around listlessly at various points, and who gets his own sorta Free Willy-style ending—there’s a lot to enjoy there. It’s hard to recommend generally for the various aforementioned reasons, but we certainly liked it.