Through Farts and Boners, ‘Swiss Army Man’ Explores the Bittersweet Freedom of Isolation

You’ve probably heard that Swiss Army Man, the new film written and directed by music video veterans Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (collectively known as DANIELS), features Daniel Radcliffe’s farting corpse. It’s true; in fact, the film is bookended by scenes of his corpse spewing fantastic, propulsive farts. At times, a boner is used as a compass. A dead man vomits water on-demand, and a live man drinks it. These absurd things happen. But, make no mistake, these things are not what the film is about. Swiss Army Man takes those absurdities and pairs them with the bittersweet freedom of the isolation of an uninhabited island, and in doing so manages to recontextualize our long-held notions of love, sex, sickness, death, friendship, and, yes, farts.

The film begins on Hank (Paul Dano), who is stranded on an island and hung from the loop of a noose. Just as he kicks the bucket from beneath him — but before he kicks the proverbial one — he notices on the shoreline the bloated body of Manny (Radcliffe). Hank’s hang line snaps, and, now free, he runs to Manny’s body. Bewildered and ecstatic, he attempts in vain to give Manny CPR. There are no signs of life until, after a time, Manny’s body begins to spasm with farts. And it doesn’t stop. Well, at least not until Hank finds a cork.

Through clever coincidence Hank comes to learn of all of Manny’s abilities: snap the corpse’s coarse fingers together and they make a spark for fire; fold his limbs back to send them flying forward, like a low-budget G.I. Joe, and suddenly any tree is chop-able; fill him with rocks and knock his stomach, and he’s a gun; place his farting corpse in water and he’s a jet ski. It’s an inventive, convenient bit of writing. Every possible thing that Hank could possibly need in order to survive and escape from the middle of nowhere, Manny could do. But Manny is more than his titular descriptor.

Eventually, Hank and Manny begin to talk to one another. Manny, who has no memory of his time as a living human, has to learn about life from Hank, and he takes most of what Hank says at face value. Most of the plot hinges on Manny believing that Hank’s phone is his own, and that Manny was, as a living person, in love with the woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) whose face is on the phone’s screen. This love points his boner toward civilization. But when Hank tells Manny that something is “gross” or “weird,” such as farting or thinking about your mother while masturbating, Manny balks.

Have you ever held in a fart? They’re deadly serious.

Here, in this patch of isolated land, the rules of society mean nothing, and Manny mostly refuses to play by them. Through Manny’s challenges, Hank realizes, slowly, that to be so concerned with how things should be has stopped him from enjoying how things are. And this is where Swiss Army Man succeeds, not only by telling a weird, important story, but also by subverting the expectations of Hollywood filmmaking. It’s raucous and vulgar and superficially ridiculous, but it has a kind of rebel heart that speaks to the fact that DANIELS made this film in their own kind of isolation, removed from the film industry. The directors were not bred in Hollywood, and so they didn’t play by its rules. But they certainly know them, and they gleefully break them.

Most of the film’s action and the discovery of Manny’s abilities are delivered through scenes that both mock and adore the standard “training” montage that takes place in most films. Jurassic Park is mentioned as a stand-in for a cultural touchstone, at first when Manny unknowingly hums the John Williams score, and then again when Hank questions him further, saying, “If you don’t know Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit.” And that aforementioned humming is another thing. Most of this film’s score is built from the sounds of these characters, layered on top of one another and then paired with the chants of composers Andy Hull and Robert McDowell (aka Manchester Orchestra). Diagetic, non-diagetic, it doesn’t matter. It just is, and it’s beautiful. Similarly, it doesn’t matter if Manny is a hallucination of Hank’s, or if Hank is crazy, or if Hank is actually stranded on an island.

The truth of this movie is not in its facts. It’s not in the farting, or the boners, or the vomiting. Those things are maybe just to draw us in. Or, in the case of that now-infamous Sundance screening, they’re there as a barrier for people who insist on taking film seriously, as if farts cannot be serious. (Have you ever held in a fart? They’re deadly serious.) The truth of this movie is in who the farts are with, whose vomit you trust to drink, who exposes you to true love, and who is there when your heart is broken. The truth of the film is that everything is relative — even death.

Even by the end of the film, when things seem to take a turn for the ultra-real, DANIELS resist punishing us and their characters by subjecting them to reality. After 90 minutes of allowing ourselves to believe that the rules of life can still be broken, and that there are ways to live that are not burdened by tradition, the film does everyone the favor of not telling us what was real in the film’s world. Whatever you choose to believe is up to you, and probably says more about you than whether or not you can laugh at a few fart jokes.