(NOTE: I also reviewed this film with Adam Kempenaar on the Filmspotting podcast, when I was a guest host for the show. You can take a listen here.)
It isn’t a new idea, the idea that mental health and happiness are related to accepting yourself as you are. We could reference Free To Be You and Me, that album of the 70’s that challenged gender norms and promoted a celebration of individuality –
Come with me, take my hand, and we’ll run
To a land where the river runs free
To a land through the green country
. . .
To a land where the children are free
And you and me are free to be
Don’t be afraid, the song encourages children. There’s no shame in anything that you are. Just be yourself. Celebrate that.
It’s a message that you can find everywhere now. Children’s movies, in particular, often contain some version of this idea. If you have short term memory loss like Dory in Finding Dory, if you’re a bunny like Judy Hopps in Zootopia, you are still just as important, just as valuable as anybody else.
In Swiss Army Man, the debut feature film from Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, we have a return to this essential kind of story and these themes. It centers on a man called Hank (Paul Dano), who can’t live with himself anymore. He’s alone, literally and figuratively. He feels bad about life, he feels bad about himself. He feels like “broken,” “dirty,” “trash.” He lacks the courage to seek out a relationship with the woman he admires. He’s ashamed of his desires and his own corporeal reality. And that’s his basic problem. He can’t stand himself and his disgusting body and “weird,” disgusting self. The film’s journey is, then, about the way he struggles with coming to terms with himself and all of the weird, gross, socially unacceptable bits.
So far, so good. And so far, a lot like something we’ve seen or heard before.
The film has received attention though for the conceit it employs to tell its story. You’ve probably heard about it already: it’s the farting corpse movie. The story isolates Hank in the wilderness and gives him a dead body for a companion (Daniel Radcliffe), a companion whose most socially uncomfortable bodily functions take center stage. It is through his interactions with this embarrassing corpse, whose name is Manny, and a very literal dealing with bodily functions, that Hank has to face himself. In Manny, he sees his corporeal, death-fated human reality, and ultimately, must decide, whether or not he will reject it or embrace it.
A couple of pressing questions rise to the surface for me as I consider the film: first, given the essential message, which seems so familiar, do the film’s ideas offer me some kind of genuinely new perspective, a fresh way of looking at the very human problem of self-loathing? Second, does the film’s quirky conceit offer me a vehicle which actually does explore its themes and characters in such a way that the quirk does not overwhelm the film? Will I walk out of the film talking only about the conceit, or will I leave with something more deeply intellectually or emotionally engaging?
In spite of the prominence of the “be yourself, love yourself” messages of pop culture, it would be difficult to say that a film that explores our shame about our bodies is unwelcome. We are a culture where we are simultaneously encouraged to scrutinize our bodies and compare them to impossible ideals, and we are encouraged to ignore our bodies as well, pretending the unsavory bits aren’t there, pretending they are not breaking down and heading towards death. Dead bodies themselves are hidden as quickly as possible and stitched up and made up and propped up and dressed up to look as lifelike as possible. Or we try to hide and change our bodies by exercising them, covering them up, making them up. This film’s bold centrality of the body, in confronting us not just with the body but with the body’s functions that we most like to hide, does feel fresh. I’m not sure there is any other film that makes farts so central and does not make them merely the butt of a joke (pardon the pun), but a genuine exploration of why we laugh at such things or why we’re embarrassed about them.
I am less comfortable, however, when the film moves from exploration to statement. It turns from a querying of our difficulty with the body to an extreme elevation of the body. There is a moment in the film where Hank, who must help the newly conscious Manny navigate through a world he doesn’t understand yet, describes what a bible is. It’s an “old” text, he says, and we see it in a pile of trash, things abandoned by society. In a later cut back to the bible, we see that Hank has scrawled “Everybody Poops” over the text, a reference to that popular picture book for children that helps young readers get over their fear of natural body functions. The phrase, used in this context and inscribed on that classic Christian text, becomes a strong statement: “Forget the old, outmoded, contrived, shame-based codes of morality; the body reigns gloriously supreme; it is our new code.”
It does seem important to question our squeamishness, and maybe particularly American prudishness about the body, but I’m unsure of an explicit message like this, particularly as the film is focused not just on the human body, generally. It is specifically absorbed by the male body and the desires of the male body. It doesn’t just say, “the human body is good”; it says, “follow the penis.” Hank is uncomfortable not just with his body, but specifically with his own male desires, and part of the conflict of the film has to do with how he faces and learns to accept those. But it’s not just about accepting the fact of one’s own impulses and desires as intrinsic to one’s identity; the film seems to go farther and imply that actually following all those desires is important. There is, in fact, a literal penis-compass in the film. Manny, Hank discovers, can point him in a direction through the wilderness, and this penis-guidance leads the two, if not exactly to the end they expect, to an end that completes Hank’s journey of self-knowledge. It’s a strange message, and one I’m not particularly at ease with applying to issues of body shame, social anxiety, and a fear of death. As my husband put it as we came out of the screening, “I’m pretty sure, historically and culturally speaking, we’ve been following the penis for a very long time already. I can’t say that’s been a good thing.”
Further underscoring the hyper-focus on specifically male concerns is the isolation of Hank and Manny. It is a buddy movie, but even more than that, the film is a sort of re-telling of the creation myth: there are only two people in all the world and they get to discover, as if for the first time, what it means to be human. Only it isn’t Adam and Eve, but Adam and Adam’s body. Setting aside the film’s world as a possibly magical realist one for the moment, Manny, even if he really exists, is, in some sense, a projection of Hank himself. Hank and Manny represent Hank and Hank’s body.
Part of Hank’s journey is in discovering the power and the wonderful uses of Manny, a Swiss Army body that gives Hank everything he needs for life and happiness, even companionship. There is some indication near the end of the film that Hank might need someone else besides Manny; there is a hint, perhaps, that he can’t, simply, project his notions of a relationship with a woman and his ideas about that woman onto her, but the focus of the film is on Hank’s need for and love for Manny. Here again is where the film perhaps crosses, problematically, from exploration into final determination on a subject. Considering the need for self-reflection and self-love seems important, but I’m not sure I see a nuanced idea here that rises above a promotion of (male) narcissism. When Hank is able to love Manny and the reality of Manny and learns to do that wholly on his own, the implication is, he will be able to function in society. Society and the people and relationships he encounters in it, will adjust to him; he does not need to adjust to it or to them. If self-love can be taken too far in an attempted correction of self-loathing, this film might be taking it there.
Ultimately, the most winning qualities lie in the strength of the performances and in the celebration of the cinematic art of story-telling. Paul Dano, with skill and nuance, draws us into his character’s fears, embarrassments, and joys, and Daniel Radcliffe, even bound to the literal physical inertia of his own character, extraordinarily, offers us lovely moments of both comedy and pathos. Together, the two sell the bond of affection between Hank and Manny, and as I am drawn into the film’s world, it’s easy to forget that Manny is a dead body. Further, in a focus on the power of story-telling itself, the film highlights the way Hank uses stories to understand his life. Hank, in order to teach Manny (and by extension, himself) about the world and about what it means to be human, tells Manny stories from his past, more specifically, reenacts these stories, casting Manny as himself. Building a bus out of sticks and the discarded pieces of junk and trash other humans have cast aside as useless, Hank transforms the wilderness into a set, his voice into a soundtrack, and through this kind of theatrical, storytelling magic, which we ourselves begin to believe, finds a way to understand something about himself and his own desires and history.
When the elements of cinema are broken down into their separate parts – costumes, dialogue, set, music, a particular actor – they don’t seem particularly special, but in a clear homage to cinema itself and its mythic, cathartic power, Kwan and Scheinert remind us why we love the movies. Cinema is a space where anything can happen. It can tell any ridiculous story and be utterly real, even a story about a man and his corpse friend, Manny. And if the film’s conclusions are perhaps problematic and if the magic comes only in moments rather than carrying us all the way through, it is difficult, in the end, to grudge the time I’ve spent with it. It is concerned with the very human neuroses that continue to plague us, and it has the courage test the limits of the stories cinema can tell. I can only look forward to seeing what Kwan and Scheinert do next.
Swiss Army Man is currently playing in Seattle theaters and opens Friday, July 1st in Bellingham at the Pickford Film Center.