“Swiss Army Man,” the film by Daniels (Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert), is one of the most fascinating, insightful, and important films that I’ve seen in a very long time. It’s so perfectly relevant to everything going on today, while also being completely absurd and so much fun you may not even notice that you’re learning.
This movie, much like the tool on which it gets its name, will be something completely different to every person watching it. So much of the interpretation of this movie will be entirely up to the viewer, and everyone will bring to it and take from it something extremely different and personal.
The premise of the movie is fairly simple (but also wildly inventive): Hank is stranded on an island and is preparing to kill himself. At the last minute, he spots the corpse of Manny on the beach. He discovers that he can use Manny’s corpse to help him do things—like jet-ski across the ocean, store rainwater, and chop wood. When Manny “wakes up” and begins to speak, Hank tries to teach him about life, and together they set off towards home, despite Manny not knowing what a “home” is.
Like any film that starts with our protagonist attempting suicide, this film is about finding joy in life. It’s about being brave, owning your self-worth, overcoming obstacles, challenging yourself, and doing your very best to fit into a world that just doesn’t understand you or care about you. It’s about misunderstandings, childhood, growing, learning, and honesty. It’s about finding love—and not the kind of love you think you’re looking for, but the kind of love you actually need.
Early in the film, Paul Dano’s “Hank” explains to Daniel Radcliffe’s “Manny” what love is. And he defines a very simple heterosexual definition of love. At this time, I was a little bit put off by this very narrow explanation of love as being that of a man and a woman being together. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that this isn’t the film’s doing… it’s the character Hank. He’s grown up in a way that leaves him completely unable to open his eyes to anything different. He’s lived a life based on fear of judgment, mainly from his father, who raised him after his mother died when he was still very young. It seems she was the more encouraging one, albeit encouraging in a way that may have seemed confusing for a child. At least, confusing in a world that doesn’t accept anything foreign. As Hank tells it, his father caught him masturbating and told him that it would shorten his lifespan because it expends extra energy, which is why men, on average, life shorter lives than women. When Hank’s mother saw him crying, she told him that maybe if he masturbated enough, he could catch up to her and that way they could both die on the same day. Unfortunately, all the masturbation in the world couldn’t have helped, because she died very soon thereafter. Now, Hank is afraid to masturbate because it makes him think of his mother.
To me, there is no simpler or more perfect explanation for the way Hank is the way that he is. And there’s no more perfect explanation as to why any of us are the way that we are. We’re all told from a very young age that our body’s natural urges are wrong. They’re sins. We’ll go to Hell. We’ll go blind. And then we grow up in fear of our own bodies and of things that we enjoy, rather than actually doing anything that makes us happy. Manny’s complete and utter shock that anyone would tell someone not to do something that makes them happy is precisely the spark that sets off the rest of the learning in the movie.
At a certain point, Manny begins experiencing erections. Luckily, his boner acts as a compass that leads the two of them home. When he remembers a woman that he may be in love with, he believes that recreating a memory of her will be the key to unlocking his full potential as a multi-purpose man for Hank. Hank begins to dress like the woman in Manny’s memories (although he resists at first), and it is only when Hank is dressed as a woman that he begins to truly let go of his fearful notions of the world. It is as a woman that Hank is able to express true feelings for Manny, and is able to actually kiss Manny, an expression of love that literally doesn’t fit into his own definition of what love is. Thankfully, there is never a conversation about this being weird or unacceptable, because both characters understand that this is a thing that makes them happy, which means that it’s something that’s okay to do.
Oddly enough, the simple issue of “farting” becomes a poignant and meaningful metaphor for hiding our true selves. Manny farts a LOT. The decomposition of his body stores up a lot of gas, and that gas leaves his body the way gas leaves any of our bodies. Eventually, Hank tells him not to fart. That other people will judge him. Manny very sadly apologizes after asking a few questions about whether he is the only person in the world who farts. Hank recreates the book “Everybody Poops” (on a Bible, no less) so that Manny won’t feel bad about his body, and Manny takes that as a cue that his farts are A-okay. Hank doesn’t complain, because those farts are what helps Manny surf across the ocean like a jet-ski, light fires, and launch them through the air to continue on their journey. But at a certain point, Manny asks Hank why he never farts in front of him. His argument makes sense—I’m farting in front of you all the time, but you hide your farts from me. And if you’re hiding your farts from me, what else are you hiding from me? How do I even know I can trust you? The fact that it sounds juvenile is exactly the point… we’ve all become so afraid of ourselves and our bodies and our urges and just doing what makes us happy that we hide everything from each other.
I’m not advocating that everyone starts farting in front of each other all the time. I do, however, think that we should stop being ashamed of ourselves. We should stop teaching children to fear their own bodies, to fear their instincts, and to hate other people for being different. We need to teach people to love and accept themselves, because how else are they going to be able to accept anyone else? It is only once Hank realizes that he is completely accepted by Manny that he is able to come to terms with himself.
The ending of this film is where I’m sure a lot of people will be divided. After a journey of joy and excitement and discovery, Hank and Manny find their way to civilization, to the backyard of the love of Manny’s life. It is hinted that maybe Hank has simply been living in the woods right behind her house for a long time. Maybe he was never stranded on any island after all. Maybe literally all of this was just a hallucination. It’s revealed that this woman, Sarah Johnson, who has been the object of both Hank and Manny’s affections throughout the film, is actually married, with a daughter around five or six years old. The presence of Hank’s father adds insult to injury when he calls his son retarded in front of everyone. Here we gain even more insight into who Hank is, and how he grew up. Hank has always been different. Maybe he actually was diagnosed as being on the spectrum at one point. Maybe not. Either way, he’s grown up being called retarded and being hated and judged by his father, in a society that doesn’t understand him, where he has no friends, where he legitimately feels like everyone hates him. He hates himself so much that he attempts to kill himself (possibly) very near to the backyard of the woman he has loved, but never spoken to.
If these assumptions are correct, we read the movie in a very different way from this point. Rather than being about a man trapped on an island, it’s the story of an outcast from society who ran away, hid in the woods, and simply observed life from a distance, trying desperately to understand why he’s so different and what it is that he lacks that makes everyone else seem so normal. He’s tried to hide his farts. He’s tried to stop masturbating forever. He’s followed the rules. And he finds himself alone, friendless, and homeless. His mother is dead, and his father doesn’t care enough about him to check to see if he’s actually dead before leaving what at first appears to be Hank in a body bag.
Hank finds joy again when he meets Manny, who is actually dead. It’s only someone else who is a complete and utter outcast, someone friendless and alone, who can help Hank discover what it means to be alive.
Hank attempts to tell everyone how amazing Manny is. In front of a news crew, Sarah, his father, and the police, he looks like a complete lunatic as he raves about Manny’s magical powers and how he was saved by them in the woods. They find the makeshift bus he’s built, they find signs that he’s been out here for a very long time. And they start to take him away in handcuffs… when Manny begins to fart again. His body amazes everyone in the same way that it amazed (and rescued) Hank at the very beginning. Manny takes off into the ocean like a jet-ski, and the onlookers stand slack-jawed at something they never thought was possible; at the possibility that maybe, if they were wrong about Hank being crazy, maybe they’ve been wrong about everything. Maybe hatred and judgment isn’t the way to live their lives. Because if what they thought was lunacy actually turned out to be true… what else have they been wrong about?
I think I’ve raved enough. I adored this movie. I had a smile on my face pretty much the entire time. I’ve never seen a film so adeptly and intelligently navigate Transgender issues, Religion, Homosexuality, Mental Illness, Depression, Love, Life, Parenting, and Discovery. Much like Manny, this film is filled with secret tools to uncover, messages to unlock, and lessons to learn. It’s a film I will be revisiting many times over the rest of my life, and a film that I look forward to sharing with people.