“I don’t want to die alone”
You can never be sure about a marketing campaign using a phrase like, “You’ve heard it a million times, but this time it’s true. You’ve never seen a movie like Swiss Army Man.” What type of ploy are they engaging in? We all know it’s been affectionately called (and derided as) the “farting corpse movie,” but that isn’t a mind-blowing detail to render us awestruck. That pitch causes us to wonder what the Daniels (Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) actually did with their debut feature to warrant an A24 pick-up and so much glowing press. There’s always a chance of getting letdown by empty quirk, but talk of a deeper existential core had me believing a masterpiece was in-store. Unconventional as it is, this may be exactly that.
The story centers on Hank (Paul Dano), an introvert who has run away from his life on a boat that’s wrecked upon a tiny deserted island in the middle of nowhere. He’s sent messages on trash floating into the water praying someone will find one and save him from the boredom of isolation and prospect of starvation. We don’t know how long it’s been save the scraggly beard gracing his jawline that’s nowhere to be seen in glimpses of his past, but it’s been long enough to watch him stand atop a cooler with a noose around his neck. This is it. The desire to find love is over. Companionship is a distant memory, family and friends nonexistent. The time for release has arrived and so has Manny.
Here enters the aforementioned corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe in rigor mortis pose. Hank wants this new stranger to be alive so he won’t have to go on alone, but alas he is not. Instead Manny is a flatulent piece of dead weight, a harbinger for what our lost hero will become and metaphor for what his lack of charisma and confidence attracts. But what if he isn’t simply some random cadaver? What if he isn’t simply farting as an effect of the decomposing process? What if that gas contains the power to propel him—and Hank if he were so inclined to climb aboard—to safety? Not only that, maybe his stiffness has rendered him into a karate chopping action figure. Whatever Hank needs Manny can provide.
This goes for physical endurance, transportation, and protection as well a psychological assist Hank has needed for many years. Manny becomes his therapist of sorts, a creature he can open his heart to and have shine back as a mirror his own insecurities and failings. Hank tells his new friend that the phone with a picture of Sarah Johnson (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is his. That she must be a girlfriend or wife left behind by whatever occurred to set him adrift on the sea. If Manny can remember her, maybe the life he lived would come flooding back and breath itself would completely reanimate his body. The prospect of finding her—a stand-in for home—keeps them both going because of course she’s actually Hank’s unrequited love.
A few “bum, bum, bums” break into full-blown musical numbers; John Williams‘ Jurassic Park theme infiltrates their subconscious; everything Hank needs to survive is provided by Manny’s ever-growing list of abilities; and Manny himself begins learning about the world around him as a child would. His corpse gradually speaks clearer, questioning thoughts and facts to get at the heart of what living and loving truly mean. He cannot hold his own head up, but he can inquire about whatever pops into it. Obviously this method places his words a little too close for comfort where Hank is concern—throwing the already mentally broken character’s own fears directly into his face, shutting him down rather than fueling a desire to confront them—but a cathartic relationship is born nonetheless.
The journey evolves into a sort of one-man “Cyrano de Bergerac” because Manny is obviously a figment of Hank’s imagination. Right? The living teaches the dead how to talk to women, overcoming anxiety and shyness to make a witty remark. This is a delicate process that needs to be taught since Manny is devoid of nuance or even the social conditioning to realize the logical evolution of conversation to kissing to intercourse. The third should not be reversed with the first upon meeting the girl of your dreams. As Manny adapts to and absorbs these morsels of advice, his life slowly gets restored. His smiles look real, his speech emotive. And we see a similar change in Hank too. The magic a single friend can spark is incalculable.
If you know anything about films of this type of psychological turmoil you know that there’s much more below the surface. Swiss Army Man is no different as it holds a devastating reality underneath the heartfelt warmth of companionship and gross-out hilarity of flatulent fuel, penis compasses, and corpse kissing. Where Hank is and how he got there is such an authentic revelation of honest torment that you cannot help but feel for the character and his struggle to be seen. Somehow this corpse is able to cajole a personality out by accepting repressed memories and forgiving childhood bullies. Manny is able to break down his defenses and it’s truly a result of Hank finally being so defeated and alone that he can’t help but talk back.
The Daniels have crafted a tale of heart and love’s ability to repair unspeakable damage. That love doesn’t have to be reciprocated; it doesn’t even have to be real. As long as Hank believes in love—that he can see a beautiful, happy woman and be comforted by the fact she exists—it may be enough. Finding Manny is like finding a will to endure when the fantasy looked bleak. He proves a shining light, the catalyst for wonder and imagination. The path Manny leads him on is magnificently orchestrated via supreme garbage-picking art direction and performed with a vibrancy no dead body has ever possessed onscreen. Hank is quite possibly irreparably broken, but if he’s able to speak by the adventure’s end hope will always remain alive.
[1-3] “Swiss Army Man” – Daniel Radcliffe and Paul Dano in SWISS ARMY MAN.