It’s easy to snicker about Swiss Army Man. Since its Sundance debut, the film has quickly become characterised as “the farting corpse movie”, earning smirks and nudges and “Have you heard about this?” It’s understandable. This is a film, after all, which features The Boy Who Lived playing the man who died and can be used as a fart-powered jetski or boner-powered “magical compass.” And its opening scene – which features perhaps the most relentless sequence of farting in cinema history –does little to dissuade those expecting puerility.
Or does it? While, granted, said introduction features Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse flopping around on the shore of a desert island accompanied by a delightfully diverse soundtrack of flatulence, it also features Paul Dano’s character attempting suicide. Swiss Army Man’s elaborate fart jokes are built on a foundation of despondency that gradually matures into a surprisingly touching tale of loneliness, depression, love and Jurassic Park.
Is it weird to say that Swiss Army Man has been my most affecting experience at Sydney Film Festival thus far? That “the farting corpse movie” moved me more than Kelly Reichardt’s small-town Americana or Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of Chet Baker’s heroin addiction or Adriana Ugarte and Emma Suárez’s two-handed depiction of motherhood in crisis? It’s probably weird. But one of the main messages of Swiss Army Man is the rejection of the social conservatism that drives ideas like “weird.” The absurd elements of the film – and there’s oh-so-many of them – aim to earn cheap laughs before overtly challenging that reaction.
Part of Swiss Army Man’s challenging of its own weirdness is structural. Right from Dano’s aforementioned suicide attempt, the film balances its silliness with deep-seated fears of physical and emotional isolation. Radcliffe’s corpse – named ‘Manny’ – begins to exhibit new powers – the ability to light fires, or to spit up drinkable water – and eventually starts conversing with Hank (Dano). With no memory of his past life, the ashen-skinned Manny is a childish naïf with no conception of ideas like “weird” or “love” (or “poop” or “masturbation”, for that matter).
Much of the early dialogue between man and corpse is explanatory, as Dano carefully explains such basic concepts to his post-mortem buddy. These conversations gradually force Hank to reconsider his own assumptions about acceptability; when he tries to explain that Manny’s ‘powers’ are weird – “people will laugh at you and call you names” – the absurdity of fretting about the social acceptability of farting while lost in the wilderness is impossible to ignore.
Also, there are boner jokes.
The balance between gloriously silly and curiously profound is (mostly) maintained thanks to the eccentric direction of Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert in their debut feature (after a series of shorts and TV work). Aided by an endearing Manchester Orchestra score and a whimsical aesthetic – that recalls the work of Michel Gondry while remaining utterly its own thing – Kwan and Scheinert ensure that childish chuckling is accompanied by a childish sense of wonder.
So what’s the story actually about? The film offers up a few figurative interpretations. It’s about overcoming social obstacles. It’s about friendship. It’s about self-esteem, self-love (in both sense of the word). It’s a love story – a sweetly, ambiguously queer romance concealed beneath a cavalcade of farts and boners. But no one interpretation quite fits; there’s evidence to suggest that Manny is entirely in Hank’s imagination, for example, but the film increasingly pushes against that reading as it tumbles towards its (admittedly uneven) conclusion.
Swiss Army Man is an imperfect film that, like its namesake, has enough fancy bits and pieces to forgive that not everything fits together as well as it could have. It’s at once tremendously original and oddly conventional (did this really need to be another story about a depressed, lonely white dude?), and sure to provoke a range of audience reactions. But, love it or hate it, it’s a lot more than just that “farting corpse movie.”