Updated: Mar 30
(While this post tries to avoid spoilers whenever possible, it is highly recommended that you watch Swiss Army Man before reading on.)
Not often do you come across a film like Swiss Army Man. It’s one of those experiences that sticks with you, from the first time it grabs you, to all the times you may revisit it for the rest of your life, either in memory or reviewing. The film functions on so many levels it's hard to know where to start, or whether some are even worth discussing. Like the obstacles our two heroes face, the metaphors and themes within this film force us to examine what it means to be a human being, and to hopefully overcome these truths changed for the better. Birth is hard, but rebirth is an entirely different beast to defeat. So I guess we can start with that one…
Swiss Army Man is a story about a young, lonely man named Hank, who befriends a rotting corpse by the name of Manny. Manny’s farts allow him to serve as a "multi-purpose tool guy" for Hank to escape from the deserted island he has become trapped on. It is eventually revealed that Hank and his father have a strained relationship at best. The two accept lies and false-truths from one another in the form of automated birthday email cards once a year. We learn that Hank’s mother passed away early on in his life, but late enough for him to retain the memory of her, as well as his own sanctioned feeling of guilt when he remembers her. While Hank teaches Manny to talk, walk and about life in general, we see him repeat phrases that both his parents have said to him in the past, even going so far as to calling Manny “retarded” out of anger and impatience. In this sense, Hank is acting as a parental figure to Manny, a newborn child in the vast world with no knowledge of anything, but still with a strong eagerness to learn and grow. Hank overcomes his own parental hang-ups by imparting the good, (and sometimes the bad) onto his own “child.” But that’s just one way of looking at it.
Hank’s journey with Manny is also very much about loneliness, friendship, love, loss, confidence and hope, just as much as it is about farts, boners, decapitating raccoons and riding on the bus. The intimacy shared by the two main characters grows throughout the story – mainly due to the ever-present possibility that Manny is really all in Hank’s head (and that he is, in fact, very sick). But the beauty of their bond and how they teach each other the same lessons over and over again is also reflective of the lies we tell ourselves in the real world on a day-to-day basis. It’s shown very early on that Hank considers himself a weak person, whether that is true or not. Hank’s self-image is that of a lonely boy thrown out like trash from a world that neither approves of or wants him. It is these characteristics that Hank projects onto Manny. As Manny learns, he teaches Hank some hard truths to accept about himself. And as Manny breaks through Hank’s shell of isolation and fear, with every acceptance, Manny powers up with a new skill to help Hank get a little closer to civilization, a little closer back to home. But that’s just one way of looking at it.
When we first meet Hank, he is about to commit suicide, nearly hanging himself to avoid the fear of dying alone on his island. The only thing that stops (saves) him is Manny’s body washing up onto shore. At the end of the film, we learn that Manny (or whatever his real name is) was likely a jumper from a nearby bridge where suicides often occur. With this change in the lens, the journey of Hank and Manny as two people who have given up on life because they believe life has given up on them makes many of the interactions that much sweeter, but also that much darker. The dance scene in particular (which is actually a HALLOWEEN dance if you look closely; swoon) is quite sad when seen as these two anti-social misfits who get to experience the joy of freely moving to the music, even if the music is just in their heads. This of course is assuming that Manny was anything like Hank in his former life. In no way is this discussion meant to steer you into thinking all people with suicidal tendencies and depression exhibit the same traits in the real world. That is just simply not the case in any way. But looking at it through Hank’s eyes, it’s hard not to see how these two got along together so well, even after one of them died. They are both broken individuals, broken by the world, broken by their parents, and, finally, permanently broken by themselves. But that’s just one way of looking at it.
The ending sequence in particular is a loaded message, directly from the writer/director duo of Daniels. Throughout the film farts are treated with a sense of whimsy. Hank thinks farts are disgusting and feels ashamed of them, so he hides them, holding them in at times or releasing them in private. Manny thinks they are beautiful and that they make him special. Hank explains that everyone in the real world would be disgusted if they saw how Manny acts, farting all the time, growing erections left and right and just speaking whatever comes to his mind, i.e. “bad talking.” Farts are utilized as a metaphor for our emotions, our feelings: the things that make us unique and vulnerable. Hank holding in his farts (emotions) is what got him lost in the first place, unwilling to rejoin society for fear of rejection. But through Manny’s constant flatulence and blunt advice, Hank is able to finally let his feelings (farts) out in front of the whole world to see. And just who is staged at the final scene on the shore of a California bay? His father, the woman of his dreams, a parent and child, two police officers (authority figures) and the media (a reporter and cameraman): all the things in normal society that we tend to act on our best behavior in front of. Hank’s adventure with Manny teaches him that even if people think something about you is disgusting, it’s really about how you feel about it. They are your farts (emotions) and you should be proud of them, freely. All of this lines up with the discussion of looking at the human body as the beautiful thing that it is, faults and all. And that extends to the soul living within the body. But that’s just one way of looking at it.
The music is great. The directing style is out of this world (look up how little this movie was made for; your jaw will drop). Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe turn in some of the most honest, raw and fun performances of their careers. It’s funny. It’s sweet. It’s emotionally devastating in the best way. It’s filled with great set pieces and memorable dialogue. It’s able to make “Cotton Eye Joe” an emotionally moving song, (now THAT’S the miracle right there). The Daniels pitched the idea of Swiss Army Man as a "fart dramedy" where the first fart makes you laugh and the last fart makes you cry. That’s how they were able to pull this off in the first place to such the success that it became. You can look at every fart as a fart joke or you can look at every fart as an extension of the farts that have come before and what they mean for the farts that are still to come. You can choose to care about someone’s farts more than how they simply disgust you, or you can laugh yourself silly with some close friends at all the crude, body humor on display. But that’s just two ways of looking at it.
Founder of and programmer for Story Screen. Lover of stories and pizza in the dark. When he isn't watching movies, you can find him reading things about people watching movies. He lives in Beacon, NY with his cat who is named after Kevin Bacon's character from Friday the 13th.