Why Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the Silent But Deadly Weapon of 'Swiss Army Man'
Like Kristy and everyone else who has seen it, I loved the farting, jet-skiing corpse movie, Swiss Army Man. I loved how weird it was. I loved how unpredictable it was. I adored Daniel Radcliffe’s performance. Paul Dano was exceptional, and the music was outstanding, like a whimsical Hans Zimmer score bursting with a quirkiness so full-throated that it translates into irony. It was probably my favorite indie flick since Ex Machina (huzzah, A24)
Spoilers for the Ending
What I loved most, however, was the Mary Elizabeth Winstead character. She only has a few minutes of screen time, but she beautifully and thoroughly destroys any notions that Swiss Army Man might become a sort of whimsiquirkilicious, nightmare wish-fulfilment movie, where Hank (Paul Dano) lands his manic-pixie dreamgirl, a woman with whom he developed an infatuation by building her into Natalie Portman in Garden State in his mind. In lesser hands than the Daniels (Dan Kwan, Daniel Scheinert), the magical farting corpse might have taught Hank about the importance of becoming himself, and about letting go of his insecurities, and those lessons would have magically transformed a mentally unstable Hank into the man of Mary Eilizabeth Winstead’s dreams.
Swiss Army Man is not that movie. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is not the fantasy that Hank has conjured up in his mind. She’s not Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine or Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown. She’s just a woman with a husband and a young daughter.
When Hank stumbles into her yard with a corpse, she doesn’t treat him like Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles. She’s not overcome with love for Hank because he has Weekend and Bernie’d his way into his yard. She’s understandably freaked out and afraid for her child. When she finds out that her picture has been on the phone of this stranger, it doesn’t endear her to Hank. She’s not overcome with affection for a man who has clearly been stalking her. She’s afraid.
Later, when Hank — on the beach, trying to coax the corpse into jet-ski mode — finally gains the courage to flatulate in front of his father, the police, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, she is not won over by his courage, or by his ability to unlock his repressions. She is repulsed.
“What the fuck?” she says, summing up both her feelings at that moment and that of the audience for last hour and a half. “What the fuck?”
In a way, it makes Hank’s transformation all the more powerful. He refuses to feel ashamed. He refuses to let society make him feel bad about himself. It’s bizarre how well a fart can act as a metaphor for our true selves, but in Swiss Army Man it is perfect. Hank lets go of his repression. Instead of feeling embarrassed or traumatized by the natural order of things, Hank finally feels free. If Hank can fart in front of law enforcement, in front of a father with whom he is incapable of expressing himself, and in front of the woman with whom he is smitten, Hank can fart in front of anyone. There’s no shame in that, even if it does mean rejection. That’s the real lesson here: We can’t bottle up our feelings out of shame or the fear of rejection, we have to let our weirdness rip.
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