And as I watched the lonely man ride the farting corpse of Harry Potter like a jet ski through the ocean waves, I realized I may never again have occasion to write a finer sentence.
by Thom Yee
Normally around this time of year we take a look at the smaller, less well-attended movies of the summer just passed, which is why you’ve been reading reviews of The Nice Guys and Green Room and like that, but FYI, we also had a skip week in September (as we are wont to do) because nobody here had enough to say about our third scheduled movie, Sing Street, to write a whole review about it. I point this out for two reasons. One, we hope it’s interesting to get a bit of a behind-the-scenes look at GOO Reviews (i.e., we do think ahead of time about what we’re doing), and two (and more importantly), you need to know that we watched Sing Street because the movies we ended up watching for this year’s “Summer Movies You Missed” review series wound up being weirdly distorted mirror versions of each other. In weeks two and three, we watched Green Room and then Sing Street, both movies about music’s role in growing up, but while the former was nihilistic and horrific, the latter was overtly, naively hopeful and upbeat. Now in weeks four and five, we watched Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Swiss Army Man, both movies about coming of age while trapped in the wilderness, but where the former was a lovely portrait about finding the best in each other, Swiss Army Man… well it’s about a lonely weirdo and the farting corpse he finds in the woods.
Wait a minute! Farting! Corpses! I’m gonna get something to eat! Now I realize that’s probably not how most of you are going to react to Swiss Army Man (either just now or if you’ve ever heard of this movie before), but I promise you that even though the movie is about farts and all of the things that come from the act of farting, the movie’s “aboutness” goes a lot further than flatulence. It’s also got erections. And love. And shame. And privacy and normalcy and all the things we do our best to keep inside for fear of how others would react. And that shouldn’t be a surprise. If you know anything about stories and how they usually work, they’re all talking about something bigger than just what’s literally happening. But that didn’t stop people from walking out on it at this year’s Sundance.
Despite being one of the most anticipated releases of the famed film festival, Swiss Army Man became a very divisive movie at this year’s Sundance, to the point that the words “farting”, “corpse”, and “walkouts” became its three key talking points, and that’s kind of too bad because when you hear people are actively walking out of a movie, for most people (who, as we’ve previously discussed, already see fewer than six movies a year) that’s more than enough reason to avoid it. Because it’s easy to draw a quick conclusion on things, to judge a book by its cover, and see only what’s on the surface. That’s what Swiss Army Man is about too. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually any good.
What’s it about?
Trapped on a deserted island and having lost all hope, Hank (Paul Dano) attempts to end his own life but stops himself when he finds someone else washed ashore. Discovering that this person has long since passed, Hank nevertheless finds companionship with this corpse he names Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) as the two (i.e., he) make(s) their (i.e., his) way across the ocean and through the dangers of the wilderness on their (i.e., his) way back home.
So once you get past all the farting and the corpses and the walkouts, the fourth thing to learn about Swiss Army Man is that it’s the first feature-length movie brought to us by the Daniels — Scheinert and Kwan — the writing and directing duo that, among many other pieces, brought us the music video for 2014’s “Turn Down for What”. Apparently watching that video will explain a lot of the things you’ll see in Swiss Army Man (which is good, because that song’s lyrics drive dangerously close to having no meaning whatsoever), so I’ll put it right here:
Everybody watched that? Everybody get that? Everybody on the same page about the absurdity of hiding our base human experience by way of sexualized bodily functions? Good.
Is it any good?
So with last week’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople review, I said that there could be as much as a 50% chance you won’t like it, but with Swiss Army Man, I’ll fully acknowledge that percentage chance is even higher. You might even hate it, and it won’t just be from all the farting.
It’s a gross oversimplification to say that Swiss Army Man is about farting and it’s an understatement to say that Swiss Army Man is weird, but it might also be giving it too much credit to say that Swiss Army Man is challenging. There’s very little concrete to hold on to, very little reality to grab hold of, and if you feel that sure about anything you see in Swiss Army Man, you’re wrong, because you never really know what’s going on. That doesn’t mean it’s hard to follow or get a handle on, however, because it’s not really a movie about firm realities. It’s a movie about what it’s like when, for the simplest of reasons, fear overwhelms you. Hank, our protagonist, might be alone on a deserted island, but that’s not at all the source of his fear, it may even be his escape, because what he fears most is other people.
When we first meet Hank, he’s literally at the end of his rope and it’s only the shoddiness of the rope he’s hanging himself with that keeps him from killing himself. In fact, when he first finds the corpse of Manny (which is really only the name Hank gives him), he goes right back to hanging himself, this time with Manny’s belt, and it’s only the odd sight of Manny’s corpse propelled through the ocean waves by farts that causes Hank to stop what he’s doing and grab hold of Manny as the two make their way to the mainland. Manny starts the movie as a blank slate with no memories of what it’s like to be alive (as you might imagine would be the case with a corpse), so Hank teaches him about life through his own experiences, and as their [one-sided] friendship blossoms, they find joy and meaning and triumph as they make their way back to civilization.
This is where all of the strength and character and warmth of the movie comes from and for as long as this second act lasts, everything’s just about perfect as Manny takes in everything Hank teaches him and Hank confronts all of the things in his life that he’s allowed to hold him back. There’s something very real and very special going on here as the movie questions all the ways we live and all of the things we live with, all those times we wonder why we couldn’t just be nicer to people, open up to people, or even just say “Hi” to someone, and, despite the weirdness of what’s happening (like all the farting), it’s exactly the right kind of nature-of-existence-type stuff that we can all recognize and embrace from our own lives if we’re open to it.
And then there’s the rational side of things, and the more you break the movie down, the less it hangs together as a logical sequence of events. It’s unreasonable that a corpse would hold a great enough quantity of gas and be able to release that gas with sufficient force that another person would be able to ride it, so how did Hank make his way from the island to the mainland? Dead or alive, there isn’t enough elastic potential energy inside of the human body to launch a grappling hook, so how did Hank get out of that crevasse? And if you really break things down to what’s literally happening, it’s only Hank’s growing psychosis that gives Manny a voice, and it becomes increasingly unclear in the movie whether that psychosis is coming from these circumstances or something that was already there.
And that’s great! As weird as it might be to have to say this, it’s great to have something to think about and never really know the answer to. It’s like life that way.
So should I see it?
I think its just instinct that we tend to dismiss the problems of other people. Usually it’s because part of our brain is trying to expose other people’s problems for their apparent triviality, but no matter how “first world” or “white people” a lot of problems might be (or seem), I think the main reason most of us are so desperate to ignore the problems of others is because we have trouble believing anyone’s problems could be bigger or more important than our own. That’s probably why we’re all so mean to each other, because we can’t get over ourselves. It’s natural to question why we’re not nicer to people, why we don’t open up or even say “Hi”, but those are easy things to feel all the way up until that other person cuts you off in traffic or takes up two spaces in an already-full parking lot or drives in front of us exactly fast enough so that they make the light and you don’t, and causes us, almost instantly, to devolve back into that bitter, hateful person we too often and easily become.
And that’s the part of your brain that will reject Swiss Army Man. It’s flowery and encouraging and cheerful even as it acknowledges and maybe never really solves the sadness that’s grown and will probably continue to grow inside all of us. There’s a defined, resolute line between the adolescent belief that we all deserve happiness and the adult tendency to tell other people they need to grow up, and Swiss Army Man stays very much on the former side, so much so that it might bother you. In that way, it’s a little undisciplined and it does have some third act problems, but it’s a nice place to stay while it lasts, and what’s so great about growing up anyways? That you hold your farts in because they’re embarrassing?
Thom’s Swiss Army Man final score
On the Edge
- Mmmm, corpse water
- “Before the Internet, every girl was a lot more special.”
- “Hank, when I masturbate, I’m gonna think about your mom.”