Swiss Army Man: Society is Beautiful, Society is Crap

Swiss Army Man opens with the protagonist, Hank, unable to commit suicide because the dead body that just washed up on the beach won’t stop farting. The movie ends with the main character crying with happiness at farts. Stoner comedies wish they could do farts as well as this movie does, and it reaches far past the ambitions of stoner comedy into pure, crazy brilliance.

Swiss Army Man is about loneliness, about society and its constructs, about family, and about the weight we place on these things. The basic plot is that Hank, lost on an island, is interrupted mid-suicide by the arrival of a dead body. The dead body, Manny, has farts so powerful that Hank is able to ride him like a jetski to a distant shore. As Hank journeys inland, following trails of trash towards civilization, he discovers that Manny can hold water in his stomach, chop wood in true action-figure chopping action, and speak. Manny is a blank slate; as Hank puts it, “if you don’t remember Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit.” As Hank talks to Manny, knowing full well that he might just be hallucinating as he slowly starves, he has to explain the world they are both separated from–women, bus rides, social mores. Manny’s constant questions, especially about why people don’t fart in front of each other and what constitutes freakishness, are where the heart of the movie starts to open up and reveal itself. Hank has a hard time answering Manny’s questions, and handling Manny’s innocent honesty. Hank tries to teach Manny about “bad words” and actions, and while Manny seems to learn what’s hurtful to say, he keeps failing to comprehend societal strictures.Hank, as it’s slowly revealed, isn’t the best person to teach anyone about how to act in society, and the ideal behaviors he teaches Manny fall short of what Hank does in his own life. But these are questions that none of us are really ready to answer honestly or examine closely. Hank struggles to explain the difference between burying a person and throwing away garbage, what death is, and what makes the real world he wants to get back to important. Hank ends up acting out scenes of a life with Manny, showing him what it’s like to ride the bus, to go to the movies, to have an awesome house party, and you can see the way they both thrill at the ideal life that neither has ever had. Manny, enamoured, says “I’m going to take the bus every day.” The city bus is beautiful in their world.
How do you teach a dead guy how to have a good time?

The movie doesn’t present the ideal world without showing how un-ideal life really is. Hank is clearly desperately lonely for any part of the life he used to have, but we can intuit from conversations that he wasn’t making the best go at a real life while he was living one. His relationship with his dad is hilariously bad, and the gentle way he insists that the word “retarded” not get used is heartbreaking. I watched this movie with a bunch of film-loving wise guys, who gave Paul Dano shit for the first hour and then conspicuously dropped off. I don’t know Paul Dano from anything else, but he is A+ as a confused young man trying to survive at the same time that he struggles for meaning and purpose in an ultimately shit world. Daniel Radcliffe has simultaneously more and less to do, being a dead body with all the attributes thereof, but he also does brilliantly.

Swiss Army Man falls into a genre called magical realism. Magical realism, first codified in prose fiction, refers to works where the world is mostly like our own, but with some impossible change, some magic, dropped in, and the story is all about the ripple effect of that magic change. Most often it introduces a concept, like a talking corpse with jetski farts, and lets the characters react as we would, although sometimes like in The Lobster, all of society becomes a little bit screwy. In prose fiction, the magical element is usually intended to be seen as something real, something that exists for all the characters in the work, but Swiss Army Man plays with whether or not Manny is a hallucination of Hank’s starving mind. The narrative purposefully makes you change your mind over the course of the film; while the ending certainly lends itself to one interpretation, the fact that there’s that uncertainty all along means you really aren’t sure. But in the end it doesn’t really matter if Manny is really asking questions, only that Hank is so transformed by trying to explain why a human life is worth living. Magical realism at its best uses its magical elements to bring light to the parts we view as reality, to pick at them and strip them so we can view them more clearly. Swiss Army Man asks us to wonder why we aren’t comfortable with the fact that we will fart throughout our lives and shit ourselves when we die, why we build constructs to excuse ourselves from being open, honest, and beautiful with each other. They make no bones about honesty with ourselves and others being comfortable, or easy, but Swiss Army Man makes a beautiful argument about why it’s worthwhile.

I honestly really want to discuss the ending with someone, but I think it’s worth watching closely, and really thinking about why each thing happens, the way the story turns. I encourage you to watch the disgusting, gorgeous, wonderful, silly thing that is Swiss Army Man, and get back to me about your feelings on it. Just remember to be honest, and fart.

You can talk to the author on Twitter at @yipp33kiyay.

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