It’s a story as old as time: Boy is stranded on an island; boy sees dead body wash up on beach; boy strikes up life-changing friendship with re-animated corpse. Largely a two-hander masterfully played by Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe, writers and directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have messed with the genetics of film and produced the mutant that is Swiss Army Man.
In the taxonomy of film, it lies somewhere in the bounds of Magical Realism, Romance, Comedy, Adventure, and Drama. Though, not quite fully taking up residence in any of these cinema traditions, the film is a black sheep. A reject. Detritus. A firm Magiromcomdramaventure masterpiece.
Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert have messed with the genetics of film and produced the mutant that is Swiss Army Man.
In the opening sequence, we are met with the image of Hank (Dano) as somewhat of a hipster Robinson Crusoe figure. Alone on a deserted island, malnourished within an inch of his life, and readying himself for suicide via hanging. He stands on a discarded cooler box with a rope around his neck. Taking in the last sight his eyes will ever see, he scans the placid beach one last time. The smooth track of his gaze hits a pothole in the form of a besuited corpse washed up in the flotsam. He starts, nearly kills himself by accident, frees himself and rushes over to Manny (Radcliffe) to breathe life into the drowned man.
Only, the “breath of life” comes from a little further south than the oesophagus. It’s a fart, ok. A big ol’ fart is how Hank knows Manny is still alive and (literally) kicking. Giggles aside, it is the first truly triumphant moment in the film, as it’s the first time Hank doesn’t feel totally alone in the world.
Dragging Manny back to a cave, the not-so dead body utters his first word: Hello. And we learn that the corpse is a blank slate – one that Hank must re-educate into (human-)being.
In the cave, we’re taken through Plato’s own works. Instead, in Kwan and Scheinert’s version, Hank and Manny don’t look at shadows on the wall to learn about the world, they look at the trash from society as its representation.
Presumably a landfill or dump, the island is the site for all that society has discarded. Including Hank. And here we have the first glimpse at the heart of the film: rejection. And to expand, the rejection of individuals, and how they experience that alienation.
The trash-rejection facsimile is used almost poetically by the film’s creators, as we are made to see the world through its shadow. But even Plato’s cave-dwellers had to be confronted with the truth of the real world.
As Hank realises he can use Manny as a panacea for all his utility needs (hence ‘Swiss Army’), they embark on an odyssean quest to get away from the rejected, and into the accepted; the ‘real’ world. In exchange for his agreement to be used as a hunting gun, a carpenter’s lathe, a harpoon launcher – you name it, Manny receives instruction on how to be human.
Swiss Army Man is by far the oddest piece of cinema I’ve seen in my life so far.
The second iteration of loneliness and rejection is the film’s critique on how society – a concept that in theory should bring people together – ultimately alienates and rejects individuals by creating a system that inevitably results in rejection. Exemplified here is that very theme of hegemonic overlay onto a mind that is essentially innocent. Manny must be taught by Hank certain social norms (not farting in front of company, censoring your thoughts before voicing them, etc.). However, Manny’s childlike mind is inquisitive, and it is via his character that the film delivers its criticism on society’s paradox; it advocates for togetherness, but only on strict terms of behaviour. And then the question is begged: Can true togetherness exist (read: can society exist) without the acceptance of the individual on the individual’s terms?
As the two friends make their journey back to the world of the living, it is no mistake that the pipeline connecting the two spaces is a sewage pipe. Hank and Manny literally have to climb along a tube of shit to get to their goal. A cheeky flash of symbolism by the film’s creators I appreciated very much.
This then raises the third insight into the film’s core of rejection and loneliness as experienced by the human mind. As Hank and Manny reach society, the solution to loneliness is, ostensibly, to be partnered romantically. Enter: The Girl. A trope I can’t say I care for, but it does serve its purpose as a commentary on the perception that in order to be accepted, one must perform the rites of hegemonic patriarchy and be partnered monogamously with a member of the opposite sex.
However, contrary to this, as the two reach the girl’s house, we see she is not a girl. But a woman. A woman who has a family, and a life of her own. The entire time, the spectre of romance and true love is revealed to be a construct of Hank’s unwell mind. The critique here could easily be seen as that of society’s repulsion towards mental illness; Hank has constructed a narrative in his head, and that’s where it all stayed. But why? To attempt to return to togetherness, and away from loneliness via a romantic connection. There is no basis in reality for the love he feels for the girl, and when he is confronted with that, the unreality of his friendship with a farting corpse – the only friend he has in the world – unravels completely.
And, finally, the synthesis we can draw from the devices firstly of the cave, secondly of society’s counterintuitive pedagogy of rejection-inducing norms, and lastly the element of mental illness being the natural (even inevitable) reaction to those norms, we are very graciously given the chance for redemption.
Manny, as the distillation of innocence and truth, starts to regress as he too must accept the that the love he thought he had for the girl was a lie. And, that his only friend in the world, Hank, helped him build up that lie. With the two both finally accepting that all they learned in the cave from society’s waste was merely a shadow on the walls of the mind, they are freed by the genuine love they have for each other. Through their friendship they are able to experience true togetherness (true ‘society’), because they accept each other as individuals, fully.
Swiss Army Man is by far the oddest piece of cinema I’ve seen in my life so far. Not because it is innately weird (we have David Lynch, Wes Anderson, and Woody Allen for that), but because the progressive undressing of the human psyche comes so unexpectedly from the diegesis of the film. We are endeared by the catharsis of warmth in the face of harsh reality by the acceptance of the magical unreality of true connection, intimacy, and friendship.