Honestly, the biggest draw of The Daniels’ Swiss Army Man was a chance to watch the mopey teen from Little Miss Sunshine riding the corpse of Harry Potter around like it was some sort of quidditch match on the sea. The film does indeed pay-off in this respect, but not much more than what we’ve all seen in the trailers.
The film opens with a near suicidal Hank, played by Paul Dano, stranded and lonely on a beach. Just as Hank is about to end it all, he sees a body, Daniel Radcliffe, wash-up on the shore. Hoping that he finally has someone to talk to, Hank rushes to the body only to find it is deceased. Filled with sorrow, Hank goes back to the work of doing himself in. However, the body seems to be moving. It is the gas from its bowels being released that is causing this movement. Hank hops on and starts riding the farty corpse like a jet ski until they crash and he wakes up on a new, but possibly more inhabited, beach.
Hank sets off through the forest to try to rejoin civilization, but feels he owes a debt to this corpse that finally freed him from the desert island. So, he lugs the still farting corpse with him, presumably to receive a proper burial. Seriously, the farting started out silly but quickly turns obnoxious.
As they move through the forest, Hank starts to find more uses for the surprisingly fresh corpse. At some point, it begins to talk, like a zombie at first then as a young child and as the film progresses it is reminiscent of a teen boy. We learn that the body had a name, Manny. Manny remembers very little from his life and nothing about social graces. I won’t spoil the surprises, but every roadblock nature sets in the way finds a new/weird/gross thing that Manny can do to help out. Hank acknowledges that he is either insane, or this is a miracle. However, if he can help Manny remember his past life maybe he can help them find their way home.
Hank starts acting out scenes of everyday life starring himself as a pretty girl alongside Manny. The stages and props are very impressive for being made out of the refuse left laying around the forest. They are somewhere between a Wes Anderson set and Gilligan’s Island. As these scenes get them closer to home, it also brings the friendship closer.
In the meantime, Manny starts to learn more about his body and shame. A major theme in the film is that we shouldn’t feel bad for the things our bodies do, we just don’t need to advertise them. Farting in front of strangers is rude, but feeling free enough to fart around a loved one shows a level of trust and understanding that you won’t be rejected for the human animal that you are. Manny’s farts actually go from obnoxious to endearing.
If it weren’t for a few scenes, Swiss Army Man would almost be suitable for children. Unfortunately, the nihilism is a bit too gritty, if not funny, for kids without a decent amount of discussion before and after. However, I hope that adults can take away the lesson of not hating yourself for what you are and pass it on to the future anyway.
In the end, you leave the film not quite knowing what was part of Hank’s psychosis and what was real. It leaves you on uncertain ground, but does not diminish the whole. I was genuinely smiling for a good portion of the film.