On its surface, Swiss Army Man can feel like it’s one long fart and dick joke. The film opens with a body washing up on a deserted island; our protagonist Hank (played by Paul Dano) prods it and the corpse subsequently emits an incredibly long fart. The body continues to fart, and violently. So violently that the body starts flopping along the sand. So violently that Hank realizes he can ride the body like a jet ski, surfing across the water on the power of its gas to return to the mainland.
Flatulence is a near constant throughout the movie, at times another new means of survival for Hank, at others another means of goading laughter from the audience (or inciting them to walk out, depending on the audience).
Eventually the corpse comes to life and Hank learns his name is Manny (played by Daniel Radcliffe). They develop a strange symbiotic relationship wherein Manny’s bodily functions become Swiss-army-knife-like tools to help Hank survive the wild. When Hank finds a magazine filled with bikini clad models, Manny’s dick swivels wildly beneath his pants—while his gas can act as a motor, his erection can act as a compass, pointing Hank back toward civilization.
If Hank and Manny share a symbiotic relationship, then the benefit Manny receives is knowledge. In his semi-animated corpse state, Manny seems to remember nothing of the world and relies on Hank to fill in the blanks. But Hank isn’t willing to fill them all in—while he briefly explains what bowel movements and masturbation are, he refuses to go into detail or talk about his own bathroom and masturbation habits. When Manny presses him to be more open, Hank scolds him: “People don’t talk about these things!” Similarly, when Manny asks Hank why he never farts around him—especially considering that Manny farts around Hank all the time—Hank says, “I prefer to do it alone or hold it in. It’s what people do.” As Manny continues to ask uncomfortable questions, Hank gives more impassioned lectures on propriety, eventually stoking Manny’s frustration.
The film crescendos with Manny’s own impassioned speech questioning why they’re even bothering to return to civilization if they’re not allowed to do or talk about anything there—things that are perfectly natural, no less. And it’s a valid question. Lost in the wild, Hank and Manny are more or less free, unrestricted, and with one another’s company, they’re pretty happy most of the time. Society, by comparison, can feel oppressive, with not just its laws and demands, but its norms dictating every facet of your behavior—if you don’t comply, you risk being an outcast, unloved and lonely.
The caveat is that even if you rigidly adhere to these norms, you’ll still probably be lonely, because what breeds loneliness more than the inability to talk about things?
The film constantly highlights the deep loneliness Hank experienced before finding Manny’s miraculous body. His mom is dead, he and his dad don’t get along, he has no significant other and apparently, no friends. Too ashamed to talk about his fears and frustrations, he bottles them up inside, making him feel even more isolated. Most notably, that it’s hard for him not to think about his mom when he masturbates (first because his dad told him masturbating would cause him to age rapidly, then his mom said that if he masturbated all the time, they could be the same age soon and die together).
He’s lucky to have Manny, who encourages him to talk about the things he’s bottled up. If Hank returns to the world, would someone else do that for him too, or would they be relieved that he repressed these things? (If the audience members who walked out on the film for its fart and dick jokes are any indication, it’s fair to say Hank would remain imprisoned within himself and utterly alone.)
And that’s the point of the film it seems: with norms of what’s acceptable to talk about, we may lock away the things we feel most deeply, the things that remind us of our animalistic nature, so that every time we poop, every time we become aroused and/or masturbate, we feel we are disgusting. We are ashamed of ourselves. So we do our best to hide everything that we fear others will judge and reject us for.
Ultimately, beneath the film’s relentless and unapologetic commitment to jokes that evoke the elementary school playground, there’s something profoundly true about the human condition.
Co-writers/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (aka Daniels) seem to be critiquing our culture’s designation of bodily functions as profane, as well as our refusal to recognize ourselves as bodies. “Everything poops,” Hank says, including the supermodels in the magazine, but most of the time, you wouldn’t know it was true of humans. Acting like humans have evolved beyond bodily functions—like humans are disembodied souls and minds—can be damaging to those souls and minds. The film is perhaps urging us to be less ashamed and to embrace our animal nature, because our repression of it breeds loneliness—not just the inability to talk and act freely and honestly, but the feeling that we’re the only ones so base and disgusting. As Manny said when he got his first erection, “Oh my god my body is disgusting! It’s horrible!” But the directors may be saying, “No, it’s not.”
If we can embrace the body and all of its “profane” functions as Manny and Hank eventually do, perhaps we can elevate it to something truly amazing, something that can direct and transport us when we’re lost if only we’re willing to rely on it.
A recent episode of the Filmspotting podcast suggested the film’s messages were trite. And maybe they are, but that doesn’t mean they’re not true, and that doesn’t mean we don’t need reminding. Because you can know everyone poops and still walk through your life as though you were the only one who does it. We all need reminders. And in any case, the film is just a lot of fun to watch. And that’s something too.