Swiss Army Man: The Undoing of Social Conditioning

Rating: 4/5 ⭐⭐⭐⭐

(Major spoilers ahead)

When TikTok film enthusiasts nowadays talk about A24, the epitome of popular gen z aesthetic, a film that everyone mentions is Swiss Army Man (2016), starring Daniel Radcliffe as a corpse and the Daniels’ debut film.

Watching Swiss Army Man after having seen Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022), a film that follows Chinese immigrant Evelyn as she navigates the multiverse in an attempt to save it, there are definite stylistic similarities. Both films have a never-ending supply of ridiculousness, from start-to-finish, and though there are definite tear-jerker moments, the films are careful not to take themselves too seriously, hence, the ending in SAM as Daniel Radcliffe’s corpse is propelled far into the ocean in a touching departure scene, by expelling his farts.

When I think about the movie now, the most memorable things are farts, shits, that river scene, the Hollywood romantic montage, and that erection scene. The movie starts with Paul Dano’s character, Hank, attempting to hang himself on a rock at a beach, and he very well might have succeeded, if he hadn’t seen an unconscious body washed ashore. Immediately, Hank attempts to go to the body but forgets that there is a rope around his neck. We then spend, much longer than the actual screen time, watching as Hank struggles against the rope that is choking him. Eventually he manages to break free and rushes to the man he thinks is still alive, but realizes quickly, that he is attempting to save a corpse. Depressed, Hank begins a monologue about how he hoped that saving the corpse would give some meaning to his life, that he would look out at the beach before he died and have the good moments of his life flash before his eyes — and is rudely, ridiculously interrupted by a fart from the corpse. One can argue that Hank is literally saved by farts, as he attempts to commit suicide a second time, stopped by the corpse’s continuous gaseous outbursts.

Then one of the film’s most ridiculous’ scenes ensues: Hank rides the corpse like a boat through the ocean, propelled through the corpse’s seemingly endless supply of powerful farts. Then Hank gets careless, and is immediately tossed under the waves. When he wakes, he has been washed up on a new shore, the corpse with him, and feels a sense of being reborn. Unable to simply discard the corpse that he sees to have saved his life, he carries it on his back, drags it, sets it next to him as he takes shelter in a cave, attempting to find his way back to his world. Then the corpse speaks: “Okay, buddy.”

The corpse’s name turns out to be Manny, and he doesn’t remember anything from his life (but somehow, he hums the Jurassic Park theme without knowing Jurassic Park). Hank then finds himself teaching Manny everything through recreating social life from trash. The audience is mostly aligned with Hank when Manny asks socially-unacceptable questions about farting, masturbation, and anything that an overgrown child might ask. And while Manny learns the social etiquette, we, along with Hank, unlearn the social conditioning that we’ve been subjected to. Hank’s goal is to find their way out of the woods and back to his life, and through a rather miraculous discovery about Manny’s body (and one of the most memorable scenes), Manny’s directions are essential for his journey. To this end, Hank convinces Manny that he used to be in love with a woman named Sarah, whose picture is the background of Hank’s phone (though Manny thinks that it is his). Eventually, the truth comes out, that Hank is “in love” with Sarah, though he has never spoken with her, though he took that picture of her without her consent and knowing.

Now this isn’t the first film to address social conditioning and stigmatization. There is the social outcast troupe after all, the one, conventionally attractive (white) person who doesn’t care for social norms, publicly rebells against the teacher, charismatic in a slightly off-putting way, enough to be “quirky”, not enough so as to distance the viewer. Somehow, they are born to care about rules and regulations and social etiquette. In SAM, the undoing of social conditioning manifests itself on a corpse, as if to say, it literally takes someone to die to not care about farting in public anymore. We gradually learn that Hank’s depression majorly results from the death of his mother and his inability to fit in, hence, the other type of social misfit — the skinny (white) nerd with glasses, baggy clothes, an inability to converse with women (i.e. Sarah).

Now the Hollywood romance montage: the two best friends (historians will call them best friends) party, drink, eat, dance, sing, and have the time of their lives. In one touching moment, the two fantasize running away from society altogether, but that would be too convenient. Hank and Manny somehow stumble into Sarah’s backyard, and Manny decides that he is not fit for society after all, and returns to being simply a corpse. Reporters come, Hank’s father, with whom Hank has a strained relationship with, comes, and just as Manny’s corpse is about to be taken away, Hank decides that he has to live with his truth: that the moments he spent with a corpse was the best moments of his life. Sarah also finds Hank’s phone and sees herself as his background, and naturally, she is scared, paranoid about this man who she has taken care of but suddenly has seemed to stalk her, and his turning-up in her backyard suddenly seems non-accidental.

So while the characters in SAM are able to experience true joy and connection through destigmatization of certain socially unacceptable things, Hank’s obsessiveness of Sarah, though positioned as harmless because of the viewer’s alliance with Hank, is still extremely creepy. The amazing thing about fiction is that the viewer is able to empathize with other characters; the dangerous thing about fiction is that we can empathize with characters like murderers, psychopaths, as long as they are charismatic, as long as they have a tragic backstory. I’m not saying that Hank is a bad character for online stalking a random woman, but his worst characteristics are characteristics that are incel-like.

Overall, I did enjoy this movie. Danielle Radcliffe plays a great corpse.

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