It could be pretty easy to minimize Swiss Army Man as quirky, hipster babble that pits the ever-lovable duo of Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe together with the latter playing a farting corpse with an animatronic penis that doubles as a compass, but you would be doing both a disservice to yourself and a disservice to one of the most creative movies of the past few years.
Directed by The Daniels (take a stab at what their first names are), the film follows Hank (Dano), who we find on a deserted island seconds from ending his life. That is thwarted when Manny (Radcliffe) washes up on shore and Hank is finally given some sort of a vessel to exert his pent-up energy towards (at this point, Hank has been lost for awhile).
Hank slowly learns that Manny has a consistent flatulence problem, but also has an array of mystic powers that create ways for the two to escape their present situation and make their way back to the real world.
For most of Swiss Army Man, it is apparent that we are in tow for another quirky love story between a loner man and the beautiful woman who he sees from far away and must talk to. Of course, this girl will instantly become overcome with the merits presented by the man and leap into his arms for a happy ending, but the story is less interested in giving us this gratifying ending we are conditioned for and sets itself apart by examining modern love through the lens of popular culture, cinema, and introverts.
In a similar fashion to The Lobster, which came out earlier this year, Swiss Army Man sees modern love and relationships to be an uncharted course. While the former film was saturated with social satire, the latter seems more keen to examine the issue on the surface with Hank using Manny, and his excitement to learn about the real world, as a portal for a flawed perception of reality and the influence popular culture can have on someone who struggles to connect with the real world.
Over the course of the film, Hank teaches Manny about the girl photographed on the lock screen of his phone, Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and how he will have the ability to go up and talk to her once they reach the real world again. In these instances, Manny becomes a portal for the more reserved Hank to live out what his head perceives as the correct moves for courting a woman — something he was unable to accomplish in reality due to some mental qualities that he alludes to.
This augmented reality created by Hank becomes a rallying device for Manny, who seems to be trying to live past the afterlife and show that he has a second wind as a farting corpse. As the conclusion comes closer, the distortion between what is true and what is in the mind of Hank becomes clearer and the tragedy of his condition and where he has been creates a deeper rift between him and reality.
At the same time, his time with Manny in the woods displays the role of popular culture and movies in how people perceive the world. As Hank shows Manny how to talk to Sarah — acting out the perfect reality where he actually accomplished this goal — it plays out like every male fantasy or romantic comedy in existence, down to Winstead (or in some cases Dano, don’t ask) dressing in peak teen idealistic fashion.
Leo Tolstoy said that “by words one transmits thoughts to another; by means of art, one transmits feelings,” and for Hank and his perception of how the real world works, this is true. The film has a charming scene where Manny and Hank use the theme to Jurassic Park to texturize the reveal of Sarah to the former. While the scene plays for great laughs and is highly enjoyable, it also creates an example of Hank’s reality and how media has formulated how he interacts with the world or feels like it owes him love, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
By the end of the film, Hank learns that this idea is not promised to him and as that becomes clear, he latches back to his augmented reality and Manny. Dano and Radcliffe give two spirited performances in the lead roles with the latter showing a lot of depth for a character that is expected to get erect and release gas every few seconds while spouting out profound thoughts about humanity. The Daniels also use montage and the fact that the story is placed in a world unlike our own, but still very much the same, to allow for a wonderful set of visual gags.
Swiss Army Man may be one of the most absurd plots ever conceived for cinema, but it also may be one of the most human. It doesn’t necessarily give you a hug, but it challenges you to truly think about the nature of the pop culture escape and how reality can be altered by buying into the roles that media instills in us.
While The Lobster takes a turn to say we all end up in the place we wanted to escape, Swiss Army Man says maybe that space is the best scenario for us — farting corpse and all.