My first thought coming out of Swiss Army Man was “So, what this movie is saying is that men are sacks of shit led around by their dicks. This is not exactly news.”*
I was predisposed to dislike this movie. I’ve had a thoroughly-admitted-to bee in my bonnet about it for some time and for reasons that have nothing to do with the movie itself and everything to do with a world where you can’t get a movie made about a woman or a person of color or a queer person (or, heaven forbid, someone who’s all three) but sure, a movie about a farting corpse, that should definitely happen.
Ghostbusters are now women Dudes: YOU RUINED MY CHILDHOOD Harry Potter plays a farting corpse Dudes: I'd go see that—
Alan Scherstuhl (@studiesincrap) June 20, 2016
But free preview and friends were going and so here we are, days later, and I still don’t know what to think about this damn movie except that it’s not as gross as I expected and I don’t regret seeing it, but it’s also strong filmmaking to the purpose of telling troubling story. (Also it has a bizarre sequence that’s a direct lift from due South, which apparently is only of interest to me. But you’ll know it when you see it. Straight outta Mountie on the Bounty.)
I read this review at Seattle Screen Scene, which was very helpful in nailing down why I was both captivated and troubled by the movie. You should go read it too. I’ll wait.
So it’s clear why it worked on me. I have a tattoo that reads “tell them stories”, so obviously a film that so strongly values storytelling as a tool of creation is going to resonate. I’ve also been fat my entire life, so a movie about how bodies are gross and embarrassing also strikes home. Mine certainly is.
But then, it’s also clear why I was troubled. A film in which you find your way by literally following a penis is not a film that is interested in connecting with me. And though I was on one level pleasantly surprised that it didn’t end like you’d expect, with Hank learning to accept himself and then getting the girl as the reward, on the other, I cannot get over how *creepy* it all was about women.
“The girl” he doesn’t get is Sarah, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead** when she’s not being played by Hank (Paul Dano) as he projects his desires onto himself as he acts out a fantasy of her.
I can’t stop thinking about the story from her point of view. We the audience have the tiniest of hints about her as possibly being an actual person with her own life, but Hank is interested in the dream, his story, not the potentially-messy human she actually is.
So I wonder about her. She’s on the bus home, and there’s this guy on it sometimes who’s kind of a creeper, and she thinks about trying to take one bus later, maybe, but that means she’ll get home later and she has a husband and a daughter and already she’s away from her little girl too much, so she takes that bus anyway, but on days when she sees him she always sits further back so he can’t slip up on her.
He turns around and looks at her sometimes, but at least she can see that, and not just feel the possibility of his greasy eyes staring at the back of her head. One day she thinks maybe he took her picture, but then she thinks that’s nuts and no one would believe her anyway and she doesn’t want to cause a scene, so she turns up her podcast and imagines she’s in a bubble of calming voices, drinking tea as Cheryl Strayed sorts out personal problems in the time it takes to do the dishes***.
She hates that she has to get off the bus before him, hates that he has any idea about where she lives.
One day he’s not there, and that’s not a big deal because he’s often not there, but then he’s not there for several days and then more days still and it’s such a relief, she stops wearing headphones altogether and starts reading again because she’s not afraid he’ll use her book as an excuse to talk.
And it’s great and boring and normal and then one day she looks out into the backyard and her daughter, her precious baby girl is out there talking to a man who looks like he crawled up out of the earth, and she goes out and it’s *him* and he has a dead body with him and who knows what else and she has to stay so calm and so quiet so she doesn’t scare her daughter so she doesn’t escalate him, this man THAT MAN him from the bus who has perhaps inevitably found her.
And I don’t really know how we’re supposed to feel here. It raises questions for me going back to the beginning. Now I want to know what actually happened to put Hank out on the beach, how it’s all really going to end for him, when he’s going to go into therapy, and if he’ll ever learn that women are also people.
But the buddy breathing. That was neat. By which I mean homoerotic.
* I wore a “feminist killjoy” and a “misandrist” button on my lanyard all through the film festival, and sometimes I feel like I should wear them every day.
** PS Please see her in 10 Cloverfield Lane, my favorite superhero origin story in ages.
*** I just really think she’d find Dear Sugar comforting like I do.