Last summer, a little film came out from a first-time directorial duo known collectively as DANIELS. The quirky (more accurately: weird) film, Swiss Army Man, is a comedy-drama about one dude’s journey of self-discovery alongside his best friend, a decaying corpse. The film was made to appeal to outsiders, those who feel like they’re on the fringes of society, or maybe those who have never known love. Or people who like goofy, surreal experiences that are hard to categorize effectively. An old couple did actually walk out when I watched it at Sundance…Cinema in Madison. There are a lot of boners and farting in this movie. The Daniels even said they wanted to make a movie where “the first fart makes you laugh, and the last fart makes you cry.”
It’s more than a film about farting, believe me. It’s a film about discovering who you are on the inside. It’s about discovering what kind of primal desires or socially rejected behaviors or thoughts you have, and accepting them as part of yourself instead of completely trying to hide them. We’re all people, damn it, and we all have feelings! We all make mistakes, act weird, do stupid shit. We all deserve love, but we’ve got to learn to love ourselves first. As our corpse friend says, “Yeah, maybe we’re all just ugly, dying sacks of shit and maybe all it’ll take is one person to just be okay with that, and then the whole world will be dancing and singing and farting, and everyone will feel a little bit less alone.” Maybe that one person could just be yourself, and that’s all you need. If you take a real hard look at the film, it can actually teach you something about love and acceptance of the self. Get ready for some pop psychology!
Our protagonist is Hank (Paul Dano), a lonesome guy and the end of his rope. Well, more accurately, he’s a lonesome guy with a rope around his neck. Our first look of Hank is of him ready to hang himself, alone on an island. When a corpse, later named Manny (Daniel “’arry Pottah” Radclife), washes up on the shore, Hank goes to investigate. Disappointed that his salvation is dead on arrival, his hopes are rekindled in the form of using Manny as a fart-propelled jet ski back to the mainland. The two form a bond once Manny starts talking. Hank, taking on a father-like role, tries to explain the world to the blank slate, primal-driven Manny. Manny openly speaks with no filter, and Hank tries to prepare Manny for the “real” world via generalized societal rules, like how to hide your erection-compass from people. Doesn’t this movie sound amazing?
As the film progresses, and we start to dig more into our leading man, it’s readily apparent that Hank isn’t actually the most well-rounded of protagonists. He’s deeply flawed and traumatized because of an awkward sexual incident in his childhood. It’s made him a repressed loner who takes pictures of a woman, Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), candidly, on a bus ride. He’s missing genuine connection with other human beings. Even Hank’s father is a distant shade. Their relationship consists of a once-a-year automated e-mail for birthdays. Hank even says his father wouldn’t know if he was dead or not, because the e-mail would be sent regardless. It’s indicative of Hank’s unbearable loneliness. Hank has nobody in his life except Manny.
You guys know about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, right? Oh boy, that intro psych class is really gonna come in handy right about now. The Hierarchy of Needs is a motivational theory. It’s structured as a five-tiered pyramid consisting of the “needs” of any individual person, with the base of the pyramid taking precedence over the higher levels. Our most base needs such as food, water, and shelter(1), must be achieved before you feel safe and secure(2), at which point you can develop relationships with others and achieve intimacy(3), so that you can feel good about yourself and have high enough esteem(4) to self-actualize and create something to contribute to the world around you(5). A run-on sentence, sure, but it’s an accurate summation of an ascent through the pyramid. If you think about it, the plot of the film mirrors this development cycle exactly. Hear me out!
1-2: Hank starts out ready to die, on top of an empty cooler. No food, water or shelter. He’s exposed on a tiny island, isolated from any sort of respite. Miraculously, he finds a chance at satisfying his base needs. Eventually, after finding shelter in a cave, Manny produces fresh water. Hank finds popcorn soon after, which prompts a celebratory party.
3: Manny’s Swiss army-ness starts coming into play (such as being a rifle, razor, and grappling gun) as Hank builds additional shelter, recreates the bus from his day-to-day life, makes new clothes — all sorts of safe and secure type things. Manny and Hank’s friendship develops and changes into something ambiguous in between extreme bromance and genuine romance. Either way, it’s a strong and stable source of affection and intimacy.
4-5: After finding his new friend and attempting to introduce Manny to the concept of “love,” Hank goes all backwoods Wes Anderson and creates an adorable world out of trash and flora and pure imagination. His sense of accomplishment and esteem is readily apparently in just how much fun and how open he’s becoming. In fact, Hank becomes self-actualized enough not only to contribute to the world around him creatively, he becomes so at peace with himself to the point that he can openly fart in front of his peers with unabashed pride, much to the amusement of Manny.
Hank is finally alright with all of the things he rallied against during his attempts to explain the world to Manny. He realizes that flaws are inherent in any given person, and that acknowledging them won’t cause pain or worry. Hank becomes at peace with his insecurities to the point that, maybe when he gets out of jail/the mental hospital, he’ll become an active and happy member of society. It helps that he loves himself now, as well. You may have picked up on the “Manny represents all of Hank’s repressed needs and desires and flaws” concept that the film presents to us on a platter, but let’s just talk about it anyway.
Manny says everything that Hank would never say. Manny has no problem farting, where as Hank hides his farts from his only friend. Manny has no problem telling a girl he wants to get physical, whereas Hank can’t even say word one to the woman he admires. Personally, I do tend to think of Manny as a cognitive manifestation of a desperate attempt at human connection and self-actualization as Hank dies on the original “island” via that noose. Manny is, effectively, every thing that Hank has ever repressed, all of the rough edges or unsavory thoughts. Manny’s not evil, but his innocence and bright-eyed view of the world without filter is something Hank wants to achieve. But he is afraid to accept the socially undesirable tendencies for fear of being outcast, which he, apparently, did voluntarily.
With that theory in mind, through their journey, Hank comes to love Manny, even kissing him underwater as they are about to drown. Instead of it ending there, Manny saves the day by producing oxygen for his still-living friend, and the two victoriously fly to the surface via Manny’s river rocket asshole. As with most films, emerging from the water acts as a sort of rebirth for Hank as a man fully aware of his base desires and thoughts and feelings. He comes to possess the confidence that a person comfortable with who they really are underneath all of the societal norms can achieve. Hank finally loves Hank!
It makes sense that Manny would float away at the end after Hank finally farts in front of the woman he thought he loved (Sarah) and a still-rolling news crew. Hank doesn’t need Manny any more, because Manny is just a part of Hank now. Manny, the corpse itself, is probably off to find Tom Hanks on whatever island he’s still trapped on. I never saw the end of Cast Away…did he make it? Or, more accurately, Hank is probably dead, smiling as he swings in the breeze. A successful Valentine’s Day if you ask me!
Speaking of, if I could get real for a second and stop deflecting through dark humor, I want to admit that I’ve genuinely never had someone to “celebrate” Valentine’s Day with. That kind of human connection is something I seem to be missing out on. It used to really bum me out, and I’d sit and pout and whatever, feel sorry for myself. But through films like this and Punch-Drunk Love, it seems like maybe being alone isn’t the worst thing in the world. There’s a whole heap of difference between being alone, and being lonely. Hank may have started off oh so very lonely, needing that sort of feeling of connection with another human being. At the end, however, Hank is alone, and totally okay with it. He’s at peace with who he is, and doesn’t need any more external validation, and finally I get it. I’m not lonesome anymore; I’m alone, but I’m definitely climbing that pyramid and doing just fine. My Manny was Swiss Army Man.
Happy Valentine’s Day to you guys and gals, solo or duo.