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December 12, 2017

‘Swiss Army Man’ is about a farting corpse, and it’s superb

(Official Facebook page of Swiss Army Man)

(‘Swiss Army Man’ Official Facebook Page)

The best movie of the year is the one where Harry Potter plays a farting corpse. Hear me out.

Few movies out right now can match the wit, insight and craft of “Swiss Army Man.” It’s a thematically rich, deeply layered film about the relationship between loneliness and the human body that also doubles as a hilarious gross-out black comedy.

We first meet Hank (Paul Dano) stranded on a deserted island, the noose already tight around his neck. He expects to see his life flash before his eyes, but he sees nothing. He never had much of a life in the first place. He policed his behavior and his inhibitions because people might think he is weird.

Then, just as he’s about to step off the ledge and hang himself, a miracle occurs. A corpse (Daniel Radcliffe) washes up on the beach, but not just any corpse. As a result of decomposition, high-pressure farts have built up inside the body and Hank figures out how to ride the cadaver off the island like a flatulence-powered jet ski. Soon enough we discover that there’s even more to this tooting carcass than meets the eye.

His name is Manny, and he can speak, though, as a result of post-death amnesia, his knowledge of the outside world is limited – Hank has to explain poop to him, and how everyone does it. Now trapped on what seems like another area far removed from civilization, Hank and Manny slowly form a friendship as they roast popcorn, role-play date, pretend to ride the bus, talk about girls and examine the commonality and secrecy of humanity.

After all, if Hank hides his farts from his best friend – something that we all do – what else might he be hiding?

Even though it might have the greatest premise ever conceived, “Swiss Army Man” would still fall flat if not for the excellent performances from the two leads. Paul Dano, one of the most undervalued character actors in Hollywood, toes a perfect line between cute and creepy. We can feel the depths of his sadness.

There’s something fundamentally broken inside Hank, and his wonderful chemistry with Daniel Radcliffe – much of it involves Hank teaching Manny the basics of universe (like how erections work) – allows the viewer to gradually understand Hank’s fatal flaw: his inability to be honest with himself.

In a perfect world, Radcliffe would nab an Oscar for this role. (Well, in a perfect world, awards wouldn’t matter. You get the idea.) His character, which may or may not exist entirely in Hank’s head, acts like a toddler who has just experienced the world for the first time, and Radcliffe, with a droopy-eyed physicality that recalls Buster Keaton, nails it.

Since Manny has the mind of a naive child, he expresses all of his emotions at a heightened intensity. His joy and his despair are felt at a deeper, gut level, and it’s completely infectious. It’s hard to name a recent character that feels more alive than Manny, which says a lot since he’s technically dead.

Writer-director duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who rose to prominence as the helmsmen behind music videos like “Turn Down for What,” display a keen filmmaking craftsmanship. This movie could have so easily become some twee Sundance schlock, yet the Daniels (their preferred title) have created something that asks profoundly difficult questions about how we build our own little islands that we occupy away from everyone else, and the world may feel a little more connected if we shared our universal bodily functions.

The result is a masterful, bizarre mesh of misanthropy and idealism that recalls the work of Kurt Vonnegut. It’s a film that is earnestly profound and profane in equal measure.

Perhaps the reason the film connected with me so deeply is that its unapologetic weirdness is not tangential, but rather acts as the central Aesop of the film: take pride in your inner weirdo. If you have nobody, then you are nobody. This statement is a simple truism. All that we have can be measured in the connections we make, and if we cannot be honest with the people closest to us about our basic bodily functions, then we can never be honest with ourselves.

The human body is a miracle, so there’s no reason to feel ashamed about what it does. Open yourself up to the people you love. Farts and all.

Nate Taskin can be reached at ntaskin@umass.edu.

Comments
One Response to “‘Swiss Army Man’ is about a farting corpse, and it’s superb”
  1. kind a hard to understand this movie but its good not bad.

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