by Abe Rose
I wish I could have been a fly on the wall for the moment when Daniel Radcliffe told his agent that he’s on board to do this film. After starring in eight Harry Potter films, what role do you go for next? A farting dead corpse.
No, you heard me right. This movie really is about a friendship between a man lost at sea and a farting dead corpse.
And I have to say, it is the Citizen Kane of farting dead corpse movies. But even as high praise as that is, that probably does not give the slightest inkling of an indication to how good this movie actually is. Can you name another movie about a man who uses a farting dead body as a motorboat to propel across the sea? It’s not exactly a booming genre, so let me describe the movie in different terms: this is the best movie I have seen so far this year.
The trailer for this movie already is a small gem of comedy that could easily join the ranks of the best SNL digital shorts. But the full-length film pushes beyond flatulence humor into absurdist beauty. I have very rarely seen a movie that has inspired me to laugh and cry at the triumphant sound of the human winds.
The film stars Paul Dano as Hank, a man lost at sea who cannot stand the prospect of facing death, alone. But in his despair, he meets a dead, lazy-eyed, farting messiah, of sorts. Daniel Radcliffe does an incredible performance as the dead corpse, Manny. Through a post-screening interview, I learned that there was no makeup involved in getting the dead body to do a lazy eye. That’s the result of the fine thespian work of Radcliffe. At first, the dead man saves Hank from the confines of that desolate island. By farting. And soon after, the dead man starts to save Hank in increasingly absurd ways that imagine using the human body like a Swiss Army Knife. His arm chops wood, his gas propels them like rocketeers, and his mouth fires projectiles like a gun. He has all the capabilities of a living superhero, all the while, being absolutely dead.
With an absurd premise like this, lesser filmmakers would have left it as a one-joke movie: A Weekend at Bernie’s II mixed with a savior-complex. But these are bold filmmakers who strove to pull every emotion out of this farting dead corpse movie. Once you are on board with the absurd premise, the movie turns strangely philosophical. The dead body soon learns to speak, and asks questions about life. These aren’t the big picture questions, these are the little ones. “Why is farting not okay to do in front of other people? If you hide your farts from your friends, then what else could you be hiding?”
We find the behavior of the dead body to be absolutely absurd, but the dead body has the exact feelings about us. The film uses an Alice Through the Looking Glass format to contrast two worlds that seem backward and alien to one another. Hank has to carefully explain what living in modern culture is like. He explains what trash is, and why people throw it away. And he explains why he has to go back to this society that throws things away. He needs to get back to the people who love him, even though he lives alone and sends automated birthday messages to his dad once a year. This all seems absurd to the dead man. The dead Manny tells Hank something to the effect of “It sounds like no one actually cares for you at home, so why do you care about returning home? You are discarded, like the trash.”
The dead man is like an alien from another planet, quietly observing the absurdities of human rules of interaction. Hank teaches him everything from how to eat Cheesy Puffs to how to sit on a bus and talk to a pretty girl. And by using the trash thrown out by careless campers, Hank reinvents the garbage into the sets and scenery used in modern human life. Hank puts the dead man on strings like a puppet, and they dance and party in a way that seems to create an intimate environment filled with dozens of close people. It is magical and funny. It is also twisted and sad. Maybe the most impressive thing about Swiss Army Man is that it is capable of making you feel polar opposite feelings simultaneously on top of accepting such a ridiculous premise.
The movie’s magical realism is used for such profound effects that I’m not sure if emotionally-guarded audience members will allow themselves to be swept up by the emotional currents this farting dead body movie navigates. There are the kinds of moviegoers that are skittish, and that flee to the safety of summer sequels. But inside those same people are quiet curiosities. Even Bilbo was able to leave the comfort of his humble home of Bag-End because the Took in him got curious enough. This is the kind of movie that will take you on a magical journey, where you will believe in the friendship of a farting corpse. In the post-screening interview that I saw, the directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinhert discussed their dreams of what this film could do. They talked about how they wish this movie could make people realize that if this movie could be made, then any movie can be made.
And that is one of the reasons why this is one of the most important farting-dead-body-movies ever.