Hank has given up. Marooned on a deserted island in the Pacific, he has run out of food, water, and reasons to live. All he has is trash. Piles and piles of trash, all of it cast off once it fulfilled its use—just like Hank, completely useless and ready to die. But just as he tries to hang himself, he sees something new. Something different. A person.
Lucky for Hank (Paul Dano), the frayed and junky rope snaps, and his life is spared. Wheezing and gasping, he runs over to the motionless person who has washed up onshore and finds a body—the cold, rotting corpse of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe, never better). Hank is once again despondent. Desperate for someone to talk to, he pleads with the corpse, attempts to resurrect it, and when all else fails, he starts to open up his heart to it. The corpse begins to fart. A lot. Hank sighs, steals the corpse’s belt, and goes back to trying to hang himself. The corpse continues to fart itself silly as the waves draw it back into the sea.
But wait, Hank notices that the corpse not only floats but is being propelled by its ceaseless flatulence. Eureka! Hanks runs into the surf and saddles the tooting beast, riding him like a jet ski into the wild blue yonder, whooping like a damn fool while Manny’s puttering posterior propels them into oblivion. The score from Manchester Orchestra soars, the title, Swiss Army Man, appears on the screen, and the audience knows that they’re in for one heck of a ride.
The title refers to Manny, who is capable of producing any number of feats whenever Hank needs them. Be it gushing water from his mouth, karate-chop limbs that can make cutting firewood a breeze, or a mischievous erection, which Hank uses like a divining rod to find his way back to civilization. Manny’s abilities, including talking when Hank needs someone to converse with, are seemingly endless and completely needed. Manny is as useful as Hank is useless to the world—or so he feels.
Hank pours his heart out to Manny: embarrassing details about his upbringing, his infatuation with the girl on the bus (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and how to properly behave in a society, even when one doesn’t want to. To illustrate this, Hank crafts a facsimile world for Manny, one composed entirely of trash.
Trash is a reoccurring theme. Hank feels like trash but is handy with it. He can make whole worlds out of it, re-creating the moments most important to him. A fixation, yes, but also a form of analysis. And by casting Manny in the lead role of this make-believe world—with himself in a supporting one—Hank can observe the world from a perspective outside his own.
It is hard not to think of Hank as a movie director, building false fronts to understand significant and personal events. That is the end goal of Hank’s game. It’s not far from a reality that many inhabit, but it’s by no means usual. This is the story of a man whose life was saved by a farting corpse, after all. Whatever it takes.
Swiss Army Man (2016)
Written and directed by Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert
Produced by Miranda Bailey, Lawrence Inglee, Lauren Mann, Amanda Marshall, Eyal Rimmon, Jonathan Wang
Starring: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead
A24, Rated R, Running time 97 minutes, Premiered Jan. 22, 2016 at the Sundance Film Festival.