T.S. Eliot said the world would end not with a bang, but a whimper. Be careful when you watch Swiss Army Man to realize that when these Daniels direct the world to its end by joking around, they aren’t taking it lightly. It may end with a fart, but they mean it as a bang. I’m saying they think this movie is very important and the big question for you will be if you can figure out why. If you don’t like the smell of your own poop, I’d turn back now, because you probably won’t like the smell of theirs either. If you’re still here, I need you to realize that these directors would take all the previous statements as compliments.
Yes, two Daniels (Kwan and Scheinert) direct Swiss Army Man to an ungrateful Sundance crowd and not for them. I think the movie is supposed to be for anyone who never did the thing they wanted to do, precisely because they wanted to. It’s for people who can’t do things without permission, for those who used to be children that farted without apologizing before growing up and being taught to feel sorry about it. This is a film about giving in to compulsion, and it’s one that I think no two people will like. What is it about? Could any one question contain Swiss Army Man in a thesis? Perhaps that was it.
I’m going to narrow down this elegiac potty break, this divine ejaculation, to just asking what any good Google compiler would ask before tagging it in searches: is it a romance?
It is, but the Daniels make a romance the way a slam poet describes a forest. Slope of hills carries animal shit to sea with the jealous solemnity of a flower girl; trees burned tomorrow today shelter squirrels fucking from the prying eye of the Google Corporation, almighty rapist, robot eye of God. You’ve heard stuff like that, right? That’s Swiss Army Man. It wouldn’t be more pretentious if it was read in low light accompanied by bongos, and yet it seems as crude as a YouTube sketch prolonged to feature-length. It’s millennial philosophy. If Snapchat could be brought to life and turned into a person, and that person thought they were artsy, they’d make this movie: all regrets and boners and crying and not one apology. You’ll find that my ultimate conclusion is that I like the movie less for how important it thinks it is, than for how important it is not to apologize for how you think.
Hank (Paul Dano) tries to hang himself. His life doesn’t flash before his eyes, but that’s just one more reason to get on with it (there’s nothing to flash). Then Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) rolls up onto the shore and saves him. He keeps him company as they make the trek back to civilization. He protects him from wild animals. He feeds him and sings him to sleep. He wonders about sex and poop and farts ... “everything.” They may fall in love. They reenact a scene from Hank’s past in which a girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) sat on the bus, was loved by him, and left without ever knowing there was another heartbeat two rows down. In doing so, Hank and Manny fall for each other. The tale is ancient and unacceptable and full of lurid, contagious, wonderful bangs.
But maybe you don’t know, so I’ll help you out, out the door if you’re one of those at Sundance who couldn’t handle Daniels’ post-mortem wet dreams. For you see, Manny is a corpse. Swiss Army Man, a film whose last line is “What the fuck?”, can’t contain itself but can’t let anyone in on it either. It was sitting at a buffet of its own ideas of drama and decided to film only the congratulatory burp. It even had the indecency to make everyone’s natural reaction to the film its own last line, pre-empting them and taking away their power to be upset. I was restless the rest of the night.
At times it can be comically practical. “We need to find food and get out of here,” Hank insists, “or we’re going to die.” Manny replies, once he remembers how, in a scene involving mostly spitting up fluid and his neck making the sound of someone crushing a water bottle, “But we’ve already tried all those things.” Normal life doesn’t suit them, even if it’s a matter of survival. Or maybe you prefer this translation: we’ve already tried the whimper.
There’s a poem at the base of Swiss Army Man, but unlike the average believe-in-yourself narrative, there’s no magic feather to help us realize our potential. Knowing yourself is the first step in its big race, not the finish line, because knowing yourself only tells you how little you know. The villain, if you want to call it that, is the inability to do what you desire because you desire it; it’s the bridge that connects love and self-destruction for all the people who fail in life because they were too scared to start. So Hank doesn’t masturbate – they say the word purposely, enough times to embarrass the people that blacklisted it and wrote the film’s last line without knowing it – because masturbating makes him think of his mom, who told him that if he did it too much his life would shorten that they’d meet each other in age and die together. Hank liked the prospect; mom just died before he could catch up. The philosophy applies to romance too: to whether love is a result of what we desire, or an attempt to fake doing the things we’re too scared to put into words. And it applies to farting. To Daniels, the people who walked out on their movie are the ones whose entire self-identity depends on not admitting that it was their fart, that day in the theater, especially if it was really obvious. Swiss Army Man advocates (if it could be said to advocate anything I’d say it was this one thing) saying without recourse, guilt, or shame, “It was me.”
Those who have seen the film know that there’s no actual villain or hero – Dano carries the whole film on his back until he gets tired, and Radcliffe carries him the rest of the way. Dano has a way with innocent gawkiness. Despite being thirty, you’d spitball him in algebra. And you wouldn’t sit next to him on the bus.
But a repeating song gives the nonexistent villain a name. Swiss Army Man has a subtext with enough value codes to found a church (this is the kind of movie some people will worship; remember when Dudeism sprung from The Big Lebowski?). After rejecting an empty ding-dong carton as “useless” and a Holy Bible as “old,” it begins to scribe its own proverbs, in a pee stream if it has to, out of a lot of swooning and make-believe and a theme song to a movie that I won’t spoil. Music, which is sung spontaneously by the actors in accompaniment to the score, takes old Americana and re-transcribes the faceless, gnawing regret of never doing what you wanted to do most and makes it a person. The song goes, “If it hadn’t been for Cotton-Eye Joe, I’d have been married long ago.” It repeats many times. The Daniels make the song a corkscrew memory of repeatedly regretting the same things. I could have talked to her. And loved her. And had twins with her. And worked two jobs. And showed her that I loved her every day. I could have done all this, if it hadn’t been for something that I can’t remember now. If it hadn’t been for some person on which all my failures are to blame, some fire I lost and can’t put into words. It might as well be Cotton-Eye Joe.
As I write to you, I’m still uncovering the humanity at the heart of Swiss Army Man, which is a movie that can’t really be eaten in one sitting. It has an idea of romance, but its idea doesn’t include a suburb or a sparkly high-life that comes with sprinklers and slippers. Its romance means talking to someone because you want to. It’s working two jobs waiting for twins to come. It’s kissing a corpse because you love him.
“Hypostasis” is a word you hear on cop shows a lot when they want to prove they know science. It refers to fluid passing through the organs and into the floor of your body when you die. Owing to gravity and a lack of blood flow, the result is farting and pooping after death. It has another definition in philosophy though, and Swiss Army Man knows it. It knows it in its bones. The real one question that gets at the core of the whole thing, but which I couldn’t introduce to you until now, is: “What else does ‘hypostasis’ mean?”
It is, “the underlying state or substance, which is the fundamental reality that supports all else.” Many viewed Swiss Army Man but didn’t see it. I think they got caught up on the anatomy and didn’t realize they were on the right track: they saw that Daniels’ fundamental reality consists mostly of farting and got really scared that theirs does too. I spent most of the film laughing, but when I left I got this weird feeling that it meant more for this movie to pass gas than for most movies to make love. The film makes you feel like you didn’t quite understand life until a corpse asked about it. At one point, I looked around to see if there was anyone who might be able to explain it all to me (was I looking for Cotton-Eye Joe?). No one was there of course. There was only me, the movie, and the second definition of a dead person pooping their pants as it applies to my ambitions to be a writer that writes things that people think are very important. I’ve decided that’s about all I can handle from a comedy. I’m not sure if I’m ready to call Swiss Army Man “good.” But if a movie can do all this to me, I’m not willing to stand in its way either.
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
|Hank Thompson||Paul Dano|
|Sarah Johnson||Mary Elizabeth Winstead|
|Hank's Dad||Richard Gross|