Friday, 4 August 2017

WATCHING: Swiss Army Man (2016)


"I just wanted to make the point that you ask someone about their interests, they'll say 'walking, cinema, books'. They won't say 'Well, primarily the smell of my own farts I'm always fascinated by, but you know they don't come all the time, so I wile away the rest of the time with cinema, books and long walks'." 

The above quote is from comedian David Mitchell when he appeared in a season G episode of QI, discussing the somewhat taboo fascination with our own bodily functions. The sentiment rings true with aspects of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert's Swiss Army Man, a comedic tragedy that finds relief in the acceptance and enjoyment of our own messy bodies and feelings. If the thought of a suicidal man using a gassy corpse as a jet ski leaves you feeling disgusted, then this is a movie you need to see.

The physical absurdist humour may be what brings many people in to the film, but it quickly establishes itself as a sensitive meditation on self-acceptance. Hank (Paul Dano), marooned on an island, prepares to kill himself, but stops when he sees a washed up corpse, quickly dubbed Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). The bodies normal evacuation process proceeds and Hank utilises Manny's gifts, the first of many, to help him get off the island. Reaching land they still find themselves lost, but Manny is showing more signs of coming back to life, and utilising the massive amount of trash in the woods they are stuck in, Hank tries to convince Manny that life is worth living.


Throughout Swiss Army Man, we see just how much of a repressed person Hank is. He presents societal norms as fact to the amnesiac Manny, and its curious watching Manny question the rediculous things we tell ourselves. Hank refuses to fart in front of Manny, despite the fact Manny's own farting saved their lives, proclaiming "if my best friend keeps his farts from me, what else is he hiding?". Hank has issues with his father, internalising the degrading put-downs as facts about himself. He lies to Manny about who the girl on the phone is, saying she's Manny's girlfriend and not in fact Hank's own forbidden fruit.

Fear of transgressing even minor societal norms breaks Hank like a twig. His biggest fear is loneliness, and he feels guilty for even admitting that he wants human affection. Manny gives Hank a chance to reflect on himself, creating a persona that likes everything Hank likes, but who actually speaks out loud the bullshit Hank tells himself. Through Manny we also see how creative and poetic Hank can be, recreating memories from rubbish strewn amongst the wood, allowing us to see the joy he can amount from trash, and letting us wonder if he could ever do this in his life before.


The ending leaves a couple of other twists for us, ones I won't spoil here, but this is not a happy ever after for Hank. What he does learn is some self acceptance though, starting with one of his bodily functions, and truth that he has been lying to himself for most of his life. Living freely as Manny wants to do is very hard in the real world, amongst other people, and sometimes the truth of this can smash the very essence out of someone. Although we may not all have the luxury of a magical corpse to help us realise this, but trusting in our unsightly selves can help us realise what we truly need.

"But maybe everyone's a little bit ugly. Maybe we're all just dying sacks of shit, and maybe all it'll take is one person to just be okay with that, and then the whole world will be dancing and singing and farting, and everyone will feel a little bit less alone."

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