The main message of Swiss Army Man is that everyone farts. And that’s not something to be ashamed of. Basic aspects of the human body are treated with such shame and derision that no one wants to look their body head on for the weird yet beautiful thing it is. Those words also accurately describe the bizarre yet touching new film Swiss Army Man, which stars Daniel Radcliffe as the titular corpse who helps Paul Dano survive while stranded in the forest. It’s a simple narrative with juvenile bits of humor, but there’s a brazenness that makes Swiss Army Man more than its fart jokes. Even as someone who doesn’t usually enjoy fart jokes in films, Swiss Army Man goes full hog enough with them to earn their consistent use, but they also have a purpose. The fart jokes serve as an expression of life, for not pushing yourself down because you’re worried about what society will think. Allowing you to be you without arbitrary constraints.
Dano’s Hank is a character plagued with that anxiety over being himself. His life before being stranded was a lonely and desperate one, where he hid from the world around him because he was afraid of being himself. It’s something universal that’s mirrored through Radcliffe’s Manny being a blank slate without a sense of shame traditional to normal society is entertaining to watch. Manny learning about living while Hank is learning about letting go of stringent societal rules he’s afraid of is a humorous and poignant contrast that’s escalated by the seeming inane fart jokes. Radcliffe’s Manny performance is actually far more nuanced than one would anticipate, actually showing a progression as he learns to communicate more and more under Hanks’ tutelage. Swiss Army Man‘s celebration of farts is oddly prescient given the release of The BFG the same weekend, but they’re used as more than a joke here. The celebratory nature of boners and farts is something Manny and Hank revel in as time goes on, using it as a creative fuel to make the seemingly endless woods around them their own. One could cringe at the level of fart, poop or sex jokes found in Swiss Army Man, but they’re all surface level to the major point allowing yourself to embrace the silly continuous joys of life.
Despite the key element of the chemistry between Radcliffe and Dano that makes Swiss Army Man so likable, the unseen third and fourth man are writers/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Despite the trappings of a two man film and a forest location, the diversity of visuals on display is something to behold. There’s a kinetic energy that takes hold of the viewer and takes them along this insane ride whether they like it or not. The Daniels (as the directors call themselves) have an inherently curious skill of managing to set themselves up as being trollish with the early cruder parts of the film before lulling you into a genuine sense of investment in what’s going on thanks to their intriguing sense of contained madness that helps endear us to the characters. The production design of the world Manny & Hank make for themselves is breathtaking, saying so much about the characters’ craft and resolve with limited materials. Yet, none of it feels too quirky for the sake of quirk, as the intense creative style is used to reveal more of a sad passive nature to Hank and voyeuristic lens on life.
Swiss Army Man could draw comparisons to something like a Cast Away, but it would be a fairly small scale one at best. It’s one of the few films out there one could call genuinely original, taking a basic premise and fleshing it out into a buddy movie based around our relationship with ourselves. Swiss Army Man revels in making its audience uncomfortable, but for a larger purpose. At one point, Hank takes a bible and writes out a version of Everybody Poops on it in fecal matter as a way of explaining the digestion process to Manny. On paper, it seems awkward and cringeworthy. Yet, in practice, it’s a beautifully awkward examination of human folly and how often we take something even as small as shitting for granted in the grand scheme of things. That uncomfortable feeling of having your body do something embarrassing isn’t something to be ashamed of, but rather embraced in a healthy way. Let those farts rip. Let that boner fly. Masturbate all you like. As long as you’re not pretending to be someone you aren’t, most of those societal shaming don’t really matter. What does matter is that Swiss Army Man details all of this with warmth, acceptance and sincerity that’s often missing from mainstream cinema. One of the year’s best films also involves shots of Harry Potter’s hairy butt cheeks… and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Straw Wigs