After a while it feels like, in film, all the big themes and questions have already been wrestled with in the collection of movies I’ve seen since the time I started paying attention to them; and at a certain point the motivation to watch more and continue hunting is to find that new and interesting approach to those questions, rather than an attempt to raise more. It makes it all the more striking when you watch a story with the oldest plot line in existence that somehow makes you feel something strongly, or connects you with characters that should be cliché but somehow aren’t. The story makes you feel as if you are asking those old questions for the first time again and experiencing a new answer. This is how I felt watching Swiss Army Man (2016).
For me, the hunt and zeroing in on targets usually gets started by something very strange. I am a strange enthusiast. I remember stumbling upon movies like Upstream Color (2013), Ink (2009), and The Frame (2014) and being so happy that I had been drawn in. The story descriptions were so odd, but at the same time were about something very old and familiar to human thought and emotion. They were just told in a way that made you think about those themes a little differently.
The first scene in Swiss Army Man is enough to make you think WTF… but after a few minutes you realize you’re watching something worth your time. The morbid humor of Hank trying again and again to execute himself by hanging while trying to ignore the impressive magnitude of gas emitted from the body of a corpse named Manny hanging out on the beach is…intriguing. At that point I’m thinking either this is going to be really stupid, or incredibly interesting. And because it’s Paul Dano, I had a pretty good feeling and leaned toward the latter.
The first time I saw Paul Dano in anything was when Little Miss Sunshine came out in 2006. He played a brooding young teenager who idolized F. Nietzsche and dreamed of being a fighter pilot, undergoing a vow of silence to demonstrate his commitment. His odd face struck me, I remember. What a strange-looking dude, I thought. But his performance was fantastic, culminating in that gut-wrenching breakdown when he realizes in the bus that he is color blind and can never qualify as a pilot. He did not hold back anything in that scene; he was broken and ugly, and it gave me goose bumps to hear those sounds and see that face. I believed every second of that performance. He holds his own strongly alongside actors like Steve Carell and Toni Collette. He was incredible, and that was easily my favorite movie of that year.
Paul Dano appears in the beginning of Swiss Army Man as a withered man covered in facial hair. It kind of reminded me of Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000), only this time instead of the old, decrepit aspect that Hanks carried along, the main character carries more of a sense of new adult crossroads. The cadaver that floats into shore and begins passing gas like nothing in existence serves to take you further out of a mindset that you are watching a survival story. Instead, it views more like a message. This young man has something to discover, something to say. He’s not going to die, you feel; he has many miles to go yet. It is odd after having that thought how strong the conviction is that you can’t have a believable lone survivor story unless you start out with the character looking ancient, having tried everything possible and failed. Nothing about Hank here makes you feel like he is in danger.
Eventually Hank gives up on his suicide attempt and goes to check out the floating cadaver, later called Manny, played by Daniel Radcliffe. The story takes an even stranger turn as Hank hops onto Manny’s back and rides him through the waves like a jet ski, pulling down the cadaver’s pants to get the most propulsion possible out of him…ok…
Manny carries him to the shore of land where Hank is sure he will find his long-awaited rescue. He is desperate to find people, anyone at all. We get the feeling he has been alone for a very long time, though we are never told how long, or even how old Hank is; though he is obviously a young man.
After finding an old bag of cheese puffs on the ground, he regains some of his lost hope.
The real story begins when Hank starts to animate his cadaver friend out of desperation and loneliness. Manny can talk! But he must have Hank move him around into position. Soon Hank finds all kinds of ways to use Manny. Move an arm there, his head here, and load his mouth with ammo and he becomes a human BB gun. One miraculous property of his “swiss army man” is that with the correct positioning of applied pressure to the abdomen, he spurts fresh water out of his mouth! Hank can take showers with a little rigging, and is no longer in danger of dehydration. But what does the cadaver have to say?
Manny is introduced in this new form as a human being, but without any knowledge whatsoever about the world. Hank must explain how everything works, answering basic questions about life itself, love, friendship, meaning etc. And as we know that Manny is only actually animated through Hank’s imagination, Manny becomes an amplifier for what is going on inside Hank’s mind.
We all, at different points in our lives, experience things which give us conviction about possible answers to the questions that have no answer. Why are things the way that they are? Manny’s character asks the viewer to basically revisit that state of being right before you really think you know what you are doing, or what everything is about. “Why do we have to hide so much from people?” is a specific example brought up after Hank tells Manny he should stop passing gas all the time. People don’t like it. But that’s sad, Manny says, “why do people feel they have to hide it?”
Later, Hank decides to relinquish an embarrassing secret to his friend Manny that he’s never told anyone else. He demonstrates how embarrassment and fear of being found out can isolate and trap people. The constant fear and thought of “what if” compounds on itself until your world is nothing but worrying about what if and never seeing what is or what could be. Perhaps the worst fears are those which involve giving power to the opinions and thoughts of other people. Why does this fear have so much power? Why do we care so much about what people think of us? Manny doesn’t know, but he’s pretty good at showing us just how absurd the idea is.
We go further into Hank’s life as Manny discovers a picture of a beautiful woman on a cell phone. Hank tells him it is Manny’s phone, and that he must remember her in order to remember how to get home. But how will he remember? He tries very hard, but cannot remember who the woman is. Perhaps if Hank dresses up like her and pretends to be her in a role-playing game where Manny first meets the woman as she gets onto the bus that he rides every day…
Manny quickly falls madly in love with this woman he knows nothing about. Perhaps the most telling scene comes as Manny sits on the bus just a few inches away from the girl of his dreams, and does nothing, unsure of what to do. “She’s right there!” Hank insists, (playing the role of the girl, but jumping out of character out of stress), “and you’re not going to do anything?” Just as deep into the game as Manny, he betrays the reality that perhaps he is a lot more familiar with this scenario than he has admitted to Manny.
In actuality, indeed this woman is someone with whom Hank has fallen deeply in love, but has never had the guts to do anything about. He took the picture on the bus with his phone while she was not paying attention, but has never spoken to her. In his fantasy role-playing with his cadaver friend Manny, he has a chance to live through the scenario again, but this time he will say something and tell her finally how he feels.
Perhaps the most impressive feat in this film to me is the fact that I actually developed empathy and feelings for the cadaver character lol. His innocence in how he processes and learns things about the world makes you connect with him just as you would with a child, but it is in a more personal way because he is learning adult things as an adult, and not as a child. His character works to shine a light on the child in all of us who have grown up, but are still feeling like a child in many ways, simply pretending to play the part of an adult. No, you do not suddenly have all the answers once you turn a certain age. You continue to form your own answers, make conclusions, have experiences, change your mind about the world, over and over again. We all become lost at times, and we all find ourselves again at different points in our lives, if we’re lucky.
This demonstration of life, and the absurdity of life, is what I love about this film. It is portrayed in such a fresh, original way and it gets through. In the end, sometimes our reward for so much searching is something as simple as being able to fart in public, and not freaking out about what someone else is going to think or say about it.