Swiss Army Man is a rare film for me, because it’s part of a style that I’ve only seen in Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009) and Gummo (1997). That style being trash-cinema, and I use the word “trash” positively. Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (who call themselves the Daniels), Swiss Army Man uses literal trash not only to tell its story but to also convey its ideas. The Daniels use of trash can be seen as a way of breaking standard conventions surrounding aesthetics. That’s because Swiss Army Man is not a particularly pretty or clean film; there’s a plethora of flatulence jokes, the protagonist drinks a dead man’s spit, and later on, uses that dead’s man feces in order to write. In short, Swiss Army Man is a very dirty film, and while the Daniels use of grime may initially come with certain low-brow connotations, through their use of framing and clever script writing, Swiss Army Man transcends those prefabricated ideas and becomes a work of art worth taking seriously.
I don’t want to get caught up in defining what is or isn’t art, but I do want to point out that in adopting a rebellious nature towards snotty opinions of what is art, it becomes too easy to say that something considered low-brow is indeed art for the sake of it. To speak more specifically, what makes Swiss Army Man more than just a film about flatulence and trash but a work to be taken seriously isn’t that it inherently is art because its counterculture towards conventional aesthetics, but because the film has style. The Daniels use the low-brow aesthetic in order to tell a story of not irony but one of moving sincerity and that sincerity is the film’s biggest strength: Swiss Army Man is a joyous film to watch.
Swiss Army Man immediately begins with trash telling a story; a paper boat and other items made up of discarded food containers float in water. Written on them are messages detailing boredom and cries for help. Through the trash, we become aware of what’s going on: someone is stranded. That someone is Hank (Paul Dano), who’s only stopped by suicide when he notices a body washed up ashore. What comes next is Swiss Army Man’s rapid descent into absurdity. The dead body begins to communicate to Hank by way of farting, and so he learns its name is Manny (Daniel Radcliffe). Riding Manny’s body, Paul propels himself off the island by using Manny’s flatulence as a jet. The two wind up on another island but one closer to civilization, so there’s hope. To Hank’s surprise, Manny isn’t actually dead but begins to speak; unfortunately, however, Manny can’t remember anything so Hank begins to teach him about life, such as explaining what masturbation, love, and farts are. The two then begin their journey home with Hank teaching Manny what life is about along the way.
In order to understand Swiss Army Man, it’s imperative to see that the film doesn’t obey our own real-world logic. Swiss Army Man is rooted in the fantasy genre, but its characters and themes aren’t part of the epic connotation that fantasy brings along with it; they’re grounded. Consequently, I see Swiss Army Man as more of a drama/comedy concerning real people with an added touch of fantasy elements rather than the other way around. This is because it is in the element of fantasy that the Daniels are allowed to bring forth and develop the themes surrounding the movie. From the outset of their meeting, it becomes immediately noticeable that Hank is projecting himself onto Manny and that the conversations between the two serve as a form of therapeutic recovery for Hank who has distanced himself from society. The aspect of Manny being dead works, because it allows Hank to teach Manny about life and therefore about Hank himself. Furthermore, Manny’s dead body is also used by the Daniels to great comedic effect, such as the opening scene—an element that could only work given the nature of the script.
It’s also when Hank is teaching Manny about life, that Swiss Army Man’s trash aesthetic enters the foreground. The Daniels embracing of trash is most obviously seen when Manny is disgusted by his farts and dead body. To paraphrase Hank, Manny is told that “farting is normal and everyone farts.” Later on, Hank also tells Manny that he wouldn’t have been able to survive the wild if it weren’t for Manny’s body which possesses strange powers. Hank telling Manny that his dead body has use and beauty to it can be seen as an extension of the Daniels’ perhaps arguing the same for trash and other low-brow conventions/aesthetics. What I want to focus on, however, is Hank’s use of literal trash in order to tell Manny stories.
Manny, who can’t remember anything about the world, must be schooled by Hank, and one of the things that Hank decides to teach Manny about is film. Scraping together the discarded trash that he finds on the island, Hank creates a shadow puppet theater and puts on films for Manny. Hank also recreates entire lego-sized cities for Manny and himself to stomp around in and finally later on, reconstructs a pivotal scene from his own life with trash.
As I argued earlier, what’s going on here is what I see as the challenging of conventional, clean aesthetics. The Daniels are pointing out that what’s unused and discarded isn’t garbage but a new form of art. That art becomes a way to tell stories, as evidenced by Hank teaching Manny through his created trash-art. While the trash-aesthetic isn’t necessarily new in film, what the Daniels are doing is breaking ground onto new territory, and so I think that here we are witnessing perhaps the rising of a new type of cinema. Swiss Army Man is a modern film which combines low-brow aesthetics with a sincere form of storytelling in order to create something new and fresh (dirty) in its own right.