Swiss Army Man is storytelling at its finest. It’s immature, gross, insecure, ridiculous, and deeply, deeply human. Its profundity doesn’t come in spite of its base nature, but because of it. It explores the shame we have in being dead men walking, and the pretense in imagining that we’re more than a brain/soul/what-have-you piloting a walking, talking, farting meat robot. It’s a weird, meandering, sometimes depressing movie that may turn you off entirely, and you absolutely must see it.
The film also represents indie filmmaking conventions at their finest. This is the indie-est indie movie that ever indied. The protagonist is a young white man having an existential crisis. He’s pining of a dream girl he doesn’t have the courage to talk to. The soundtrack is a mix of guitar solos and a capella beats. It has a wacky is-this-fantasy-or-is-our-hero-crazy premise. Oh… and that thing in the bushes? It’ll stay off camera, because filming it was probably too expensive.
Summing up this list of clichés, the film sounds like pretentious garbage, and it’s to the filmmakers’ (Dan Kwan, Daniel Shienert… a.k.a. “Daniels”) credit that it’s not. Paul Dano, who plays our suicidal survivor protagonist, Hank, is a navel-gazing loser. At the beginning of the film, he’s somehow become trapped on a desert island. He’s tortuously lonely, but moreover, we find, he’s not really certain that would be any different if he found his way home. He doesn’t seem likely to make the world a better place because he’s too insecure to invest himself in it. Yet Hank is deeply likable, not just because of his sheer earnestness, but because he so clearly represents the social phobias instilled in all of us.
Hank’s forced exile doesn’t last long, however, because he meets Manny, a corpse (played by Daniel Radcliffe) whose seemingly supernaturally perpetual farts are used to jet ski to freedom! Manny’s lifeless body indeed proves useful in a number of survival situations (like a Swiss Army Knife!). But, more importantly, Manny provides unusually consistent company for a dead man. Without spoiling too much – Yes. Daniel Radcliffe does get to act in this movie, and he’s delightfully hilarious.
The film descends into what may be the weirdest buddy road trip/romantic comedy of all time. It starts out strange and just gets weirder from there. But the weirdness is in service of a larger goal, which, quite simply, is learning to be okay with our own weirdness. Hank may or may not be driving to the brink of madness, and we’re being driven right along with him. “But what’s the point of being sane,” Swiss Army Man asks, “if all it does is make you despise your own nature?” There are no clear answers, and the film ends on just as weird a question mark as it begins. But pretentious and over-reaching this film is not. It says exactly what it wants to say with tropes misused by many the haughty amateur auteur, and says it succinctly.
If you can’t stand farts, you may despise Swiss Army Man, but you probably also need to reevaluate your priorities, and that’s exactly what the film is here to help you do. For those who are okay with farts, but feel shamed by the previous category of people, this movie is here to help you process that shame. For people who love farts and don’t care who knows it, you’ve found your magnum opus. Regardless of your category, go to your nearest art house theater and give them money to see Swiss Army Man. The world will be a better place for it.