Swiss Army Man has got to be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. It is a monumental tribute to friendship…life-sustaining, life-giving friendship, and what the directors did in making this movie is also a monumental tribute …to undiluted creativity, absurdity, and how we give life to one another.
The movie is about the meeting and subsequent friendship of Hank and Manny. Hank is stranded on an island and seeing no way out, decides to hang himself. Just as he is about to hang himself, he spots a body on the shore- the corpse of Manny.
Seeing Manny gives Hank a will to live and for the rest of the movie, Manny is a constant source of life-sustainment for Hank. Manny gives Hank company, gives him the task of educating and story telling…asking him about the world and the life he doesn’t remember. He questions so many of the social norms that Hank tries to explain, and we see how the social norms that stifled Hank into running away to an island in the first place slowly disintegrate throughout the movie and give him the freedom to create a life for himself. Of course, Manny, as a corpse, also depends on Hank to move him…giving Hank responsibility and the experience of being depended on. Sometimes, what sustains us can be the idea that we are useful.
Hank literally gives Manny life because by dragging him around everywhere and using him for any/everything as a “Swiss Army Man”…(his spit as a water supply etc.) he slowly brings him back to some kind of half-life. This movie accepts that people inevitably use each other…and it does so, unlike so many other movies and media, without any cynicism in the notion. It’s rare to see a true symbiotic relationship portrayed today, where a strong love and friendship is built between two characters who both need each other to survive.
Jet ski farts, boner compass, and many other absurd, totally nuts, and hilarious things comprise Manny’s special powers. Once you get over the hilarity and the grossness of his superpowers, it is so moving to realize that all the things that make him special are the most human things. The things we try to conceal from one another, the things that society teaches us are not appropriate, the things we are embarrassed by like our bodies and our beliefs. Farts, boners, awkwardness, and constant weird questions…unwavering curiosity. What a powerful statement that is- what makes us capable, what makes us special is our humanity, no matter how primitive or base that may be.
Besides all the ways (many of which I’m sure I haven’t picked up on!) this movie is thoughtful, thought-provoking, and moving, it is just so fun. I was so moved I cried for half the movie. The other half, I was crying from laughing. This was the first time I worried I was being disruptive in a theater! The acting is phenomenal…Paul Dano as Hank acts with such palpable joy, desperation, and humanity..the joy of discovering he’s not alone, the joy of finding cheese puffs, the desperation of wanting to be understood when explaining difficult things to Manny etc.. And Daniel Radcliffe as Manny the corpse is a marvel, hilarious as the straight (literally rigor mortis) man, acting with so little of the expression and emotion Paul Dano does; it was incredible to see an actor …people who practice and train to react, to not be reactive at all. The commitment with which they played the opposite spectrums of humanity was awe-inspiring.
Watching this movie, I’m reminded of a famous John Donne poem, especially on my mind these days with such tragedies as Orlando and Turkey-
“No man is an island entire; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
“No man is an island” but sometimes we feel that way…we are all lost and stranded sometimes with no way out and we need others. In a way, it’s a story we’ve all heard…about two people who save each other with their friendship…but the potent imagination and the unwavering commitment with which this movie is rendered make it an unmissable experience.