As with several other things you’d like to know throughout the film, it’s never clear how long Paul Dano’s character Hank was stranded on the tiny, uninhabited Pacific desert island or even how he got there, but there are clues.
During the opening moments of the baffling new comedy/drama Swiss Army Man, Hank is about to hang himself. From the scratch writing he’s made on the side of various small pieces of plastic junk he’s floated out to sea, you can glimpse ‘I don’t want to die alone’ and ‘Took a boat and got caught in a storm.’ They’re Hank’s equivalent of a message in a bottle. From the look of his tousled hair and the length of his bushy beard, it could easily be months, perhaps even a year since he washed up on shore. He’s Robinson Crusoe in plaid.
Then, just at the moment Hank is about to end it all he spies something odd on the beach. It’s the body of a white male dressed in a suit (Daniel Radcliffe) who may or may not be dead; Hank’s not sure, but from the whiteness of its face, the prominent blue veins and that blank stare in its pale, blue eyes, it’s safe to say it’s a dead body. Then the weirdness starts.
Suddenly, the body convulses as if new life is forced into its system and it’s trying to stand up, but from the sound of things, and the fact that the body’s rear end keeps rising as if yanked by an invisible wire, it’s gas; really bad gas. Hank’s Man Friday is a cadaver with a serious case of flatulence. “That’s really funny,” Hank deadpans.
But with oddness comes opportunity. The body, later referred to as Manny, omits so much gas and expels it with such velocity, Hank is inspired. If he could harness that gas, direct it and ride on the back of Manny through the water as though the body was a jet ski, Hank could potentially get off the island. It’s a crazy idea… but it just might work. Ocean-going travel, powered by farts.
And if by now you’re thinking, well, that’s weird, be warned; that’s only the beginning, though to call Swiss Army Man weird is to take the easy route. It’s somewhere between peculiar and bizarre: I’m just not sure there’s a word. As things progress and Hank and his cadaver wash up on another shore with no clue if civilization is anywhere near them, you get the feeling that the whole thing was dreamed as a lark late one night by a couple of naughty boys, drunk on dad’s secret booze, who erupted into loud giggles every time one of them outdid the other with an adolescent fart joke; then they wrote a movie.
If by the halfway mark of its 95 minute running time you haven’t walked out and you’re determined to stick with it until its perplexing end, you and your movie-going company may feel the urge to split up into discussion groups and come up with ideas of what you’ve just seen and what it all means; it’s that kind of film. Flatulence is one thing – fart jokes will always bring out the worst in all of us, no matter how young or old – but later, when in a cave and the cadaver starts muttering something and the muscles around its mouth become strong enough for the body to form words, then things have really gone off the rails. “You’re a miracle or I’m hallucinating from starvation,” mutters Hank.
Maybe Manny is a miracle and is somehow slowly coming back to life, or maybe Hank really is hallucinating and projecting his delirious thoughts and feelings through this cadaver. The film isn’t saying, but one thing’s clear; if you’re lost without a Swiss Army Knife to get you through the clearing, then the dead guy in the suit will have to do. Besides the jet-propelled gas trick, Manny can also be used as an instant water-dispenser, a wood-chopper via some killer karate action, and most bizarrely, a compass that points in the right direction once the body develops an erection, inspired by water-logged girlie pictures from a couple of washed-ashore fashion magazines. “You’re a multipurpose tool guy,” Hank explains.
There’s also the issue of cyber-stalking where Hank’s cell phone – yes, he still has one but with only 10% battery power and no signal – has a picture of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a character called Sarah whom Hank has previously seen riding a bus, and now gives the impression to Manny that she might be his girlfriend. Once Manny is verbally fully expressive, the two have long conversations in the woods about masturbation, sex, and what kind of things you can watch on Netflix. With no memory of anything, Manny asks, “What’s Netflix?”
If you’re looking for clues as to what the film is trying to say – if it’s trying to say anything at all – no matter how creative or silly an idea may seem, throw it out there. It can’t be any more creative or silly than what you’re watching, but if you’re trying to figure whether the events are real or simply Hank’s delirious imagination, ponder this. During an early scene, alone, no Manny nearby, Hank mutters a few lines from the old traditional folk song Cotton Eye Joe. Later, when alone with no Hank nearby, Manny mutters lines from the same song. Does that mean anything? Who knows. And how about Dano’s character name, Hank? Had director/writers Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan seen Tom Hanks in Cast Away a few too many times and wrote their own version, inspired to create a flatulent cadaver as Hank’s sidekick the moment Wilson the basketball is punctured and gas escapes? Stupid, sure, but it’s as good a theory as any.
But out of all the unknowns, there is one question easy to tackle. When Manny the cadaver asks Hank, “What’s Netflix?” the answer is clear; it’s the streaming system through which majority of this film’s audience will tolerate it.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 95 minutes Overall Rating: 3 (out of 10)