“Why are we here? What is life all about? Is God really real, or is there some doubt?” Eric Idle once sang in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Those questions are existentialism 101. Started most notably by philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, existentialism postulates that there are no meta-narratives or universal truths, alternately emphasizing subjective meaning.
The largest get from existentialism is for an individual to reject cultural conventions and attempt to overcome the self through unending growth. What is only comes about through one’s usage of language. But maybe that’s just blowing smoke up people’s behinds.
So what happens, then, when a young man is stranded on a beach, and has come to the conclusion that he’s going to perish from thirst and starvation? Can he find meaning in the futility? Did his life have a purpose to begin with? He should probably just hang himself.
What if at the moment when all things seem their darkest, the corpse of another washes up on shore and the young man beings to believe there is hope for salvation? What if that corpse starts farting and won’t stop farting, and the young man gets the bright idea to use the rotting flesh to escape his certain demise? For this is existentialism in observance, this is Swiss Army Man.
I am a Rock, I am an Island
Having been marooned somehow on a tiny island off the pacific coast, Hank (Paul Dano) is at the end of his rope and about to end his life when the dead body of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) comes in with the tide. At first Hank tries to resuscitate Manny back to life, but quickly realizes it’s a useless attempt.
Just as quickly, Manny lets out some gas from his bowels, and continues to do so. Taken aback, Hank puts to mind the wild notion that he can ride Manny’s body off the island to the mainland and make an arduous trek into civilization.
Swiss Army Man made its debut back in late January of 2016 at the Sundance Film Festival, and it became synonymous as “that farting corpse movie.” It was unduly labeled with bad press by people claiming the film was in such bad taste that it caused walkouts. Certainly, walkouts did occur, but not for the reasons of offensiveness or being a poorly-crafted movie.
No, the people who walked out were industry folk looking to buy the film, and at a certain point realized they probably couldn’t market it, and therefore went on to another. This happens all the time. But thanks to the great indie powerhouse A24, they stuck around and eventually bought and released the film, so the masses can consume all its wonderful absurdity.
Not only does Manny constantly pass wind, but he is able to be used like a Swiss Army knife. Hank can use Manny like a gas-powered trebuchet, hurling rocks like bullets. When shoved down his throat, Manny can shoot high-velocity cables as ropes for Hank to climb up. Manny is wonder. And no, I won’t spoil what Manny’s special purpose is used for.
As their wacky misadventures continue, Manny starts to come back to life from Hank’s perspective. And it is in this most bizarre construct that the film goes from a typical feel-good indie flick into one of deep introspection about existence.
Ironically, Manny is technically an undead body, feeding off the information that Hank feeds him. Hank becomes a surrogate father to Manny, instructing him about the proper etiquette of society, though the film chooses to subvert such traditions by being idiosyncratic and employing unacceptable bodily functions.
Think of it as a more contemplative version of the campfire/bean scene in Blazing Saddles. Swiss Army Man is silly, yet profoundly utters tidbits of revelations that make living more bearable.
Let’s Get Physical
First-time directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have made a comedic masterpiece among 2016’s dopey misfires. Though it isn’t strictly comedy nor drama, it rides the line fairly well and effectively. The film is well-directed, shot beautifully, and takes full advantage of Dano and Radcliffe’s talents.
It’s basically the two of them for the majority of the runtime playing off the other’s reactions, and the chemistry is as potent and real as any duo in a great buddy-cop film. But the real honors must go to Radcliffe, who gives the best performance of his career.
Indiewire has started a faux-Oscar campaign for him, and I second their impractical jest because Radcliffe is truly wonderful in this film.
What Kwan and Scheinert have put together echoes some of history’s best fictional works. Most notably is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. In that masterful novel, the character Ishmael runs to the high seas as a means of avoiding suicide, only for death to stalk him at every turn. In the end, the body of Ishmael’s whaling partner is what saves him, and in turn, puts him in right standing with the universe and calms the storm inside him.
Not that Swiss Army Man is directly quoting Melville, but the similarities are there for one to pick up on. The surmised lesson or message is that life is a complex system of linguistics, and only in others can meaning and fulfillment be found, in particular in their death and sacrifice.
Manny is a literal lifeboat for Hank, and it’s a really beautiful sentiment in today’s world of near societal collapse. We need each other, no matter how bizarre and culturally offensive ours or our neighbor’s habits might be. We need to look beyond our stifling milieus and embrace the radical pariahs and eccentric brood, for theirs is the way to salvation and finding a meaningful life.
Swiss Army Man is a quirky and deliriously fun tale that has wit and beating heart. Strengthened by the two leading actors’ terrific performances, and the smart-as-a-whip direction, this is one film that’s sure to create a little peace of heaven in the daze of undefined existences.
Swiss Army Man is playing in the U.S., it opens September 30th in the U.K. For all international release dates see here.
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.