Swiss Army Man full movie review - Don't be fooled by many of the reviews; Swiss Army Man is a rigorous and unflinching portrayal
In my view, Swiss Army Man is an unflinching and clinical documentary of the emotional life of a mentally ill, severely repressed adolescent boy named Hank, whose diminished mental capacity has been exacerbated by a repressive and dominant father.
The father's violations have induced excessive shame with regard to normal bodily functions (farting, pooping, fantasizing about girls, masturbating); the boy is disturbed by the powerful sexual urges experienced by any teenager, and is painfully shy, lonely and socially isolated. Hank has been laughed at by others; his father has called him retarded and presumably diminished his sense of self in plenty of other ways. His mother appears to be kinder towards him but his father is dominant.
Seeking love and kindness, Hank has fixated on a girl on the bus. He knows where she lives, runs away from home, and camps out in the woods by her home. All he has to eat is some junk food and soda. He quickly runs out of food and drinks bad water from a stream. With such a poor diet his body is exhibiting gastrointestinal problems and he's farting and pooping, shaming him further. He's having the normal erections and lustful thoughts of a teenager and is haunted by guilt and repression. His loneliness and sense of isolation manifests in a delusion that he is living on a desert island. He decides to kill himself but the rope he assembles from litter in the woods comes apart. Something triggers a deeper psychosis: perhaps the failed suicide attempt; perhaps he truly discovers a corpse in the woods; or perhaps he "simply" drops into a more manic episode. In any event he resolves his shameful feelings by splitting into two personalities, constructing an alter ego, Manny. It is Manny, not Hank, who is doing all the farting, having all the erections, having the mother fantasies. He is in two minds about whether to give Manny his fantasy about the girl since he wants to keep her for himself, since she is Hank's hope for rescue from his torment, his deliverer of love and affection and sexual gratification. In Manny all the shameful body functions become legitimized: the farts become a form of locomotion, the erections become the compass to the girl (she is after all the focus of these). Hank's euphoria (racing through the water on top of Manny) suggests a manic high.
Manny speaks with Hank's own inner repressed voice, or perhaps his mother's voice, telling him there's nothing wrong with his sexual desire, or his farting. Manny articulates his confusion about being laughed at and being called retarded. While Manny takes the role of Hank, Hank dresses as a woman, as the girl he wants to love him, seeking some kind of comfort and intimacy, trying desperately to fulfill his own needs by himself, trying to reinvent his life and find some emotional rescue. He tells Manny how to be attractive to women, how to walk and talk and wear shades, while admitting his own shyness and lack of courage. Manny meanwhile also "saves" him from his physical distress, becoming his magical source for the food and water he doesn't really have. In the woods Hank also encounters the normal life of the American northwest, a raccoon, animal sounds in the bushes, juniper berries that make him sick. A sewage pipe across a stream (source of the dirty water he's drinking) becomes in his imagination a dangerous crossing over a great river. He falls in and is "rescued" by Manny.
An encounter, real or imagined, with a bear finally drives Hank out of the woods, perhaps wounded. The sad story ends when he emerges into the back yard of the woman he has fixated on. She discovers him talking to her young daughter, gets her child away, and calls for help. Hank only sees that she is caring for him. Things now start happening very quickly: the police and social services and Hank's father arrive. His father walks away from him, rejecting him once again. Hank runs off and is chased and brought back. He rationalizes this experience of "rescue" into a new script where everyone now understands and cares for him. He has been welcomed home, his father gives him the slightest nod of approval, an indication by the filmmakers of how Hank is converting the most insignificant signals into experiences of approval and understanding. Everything will be OK. Manny no longer has a role; he takes off, seen by everyone to be taking Hank's shame with him. Hank is now in the hands of others, believing in his salvation while doubtless en route to medication and mental health services.
The film is quite unflinching in its portrayal and gives away nothing. It is a sign of its success that the emotional experience of the viewer is not sadness for this terribly sad story, but of bewilderment and an uneasy humor. Viewers have reported a wide range of responses: leaving early, disgusted by the "cheap laughs"; feeling that it delivered an immature, childish philosophy; experiencing it as a profound meditation on modern life and death. But in fact the movie does nothing more or less than attempt to describe an episode in the life of a disturbed, possibly bi-polar or schizophrenic, certainly repressed and emotionally violated young man. Whether the depiction is psychologically accurate I am not qualified to say, but the preoccupation with farts and sex and childish philosophies are not those of the film makers but of the young man being portrayed. It is to the credit of the film makers that they never deviated from this portrayal and never made any attempt to distinguish themselves from the subject, to the extent that many people may be entirely mistaken in their interpretation of the film and of the directors' abilities and intentions. That is both courageous and skillful. Well done Daniels!!