(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. Continue reading