Swiss Army Man
I just saw this beautifully weird, and surprising soon-to-be-cult-classic last night. I had never even heard of it until Montage, a song off its soundtrack, popped into my Spotify playlist. The rest of the film’s ethereal soundtrack was just as mesmerizing, so I looked it up. It was identified as “the farting-corpse movie,” and maybe it says something about me, but I had to watch it.
The story is about a profoundly unhappy man, who for some reason is shipwrecked on an island. In the first scene, Hank (Paul Dano), is about to hang himself when he spies a body wash ashore. The body (Daniel Radcliff) is both dead and very gassy— gassy enough for Hank to ride jet-ski style to dry land and a forest. Hank makes his way through the forest, dragging the body along with him.
Slowly the body reanimates, calling itself Manny, but apparently, he has amnesia. Manny doesn’t remember anything about the world, or about his previous life. On their way to find civilization, Manny asks Hank to recreate it for him. Hank does so, enthusiastically, out of branches, stones, and trash. Their conversations drift to Hank’s mother, sexual repression, and his obsession with Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a girl he has never spoken to. We learn that Hank was on the island because he ran away, and by the end of the movie it’s still unclear why he was so isolated.
On the surface the movie seems to be about rejection, unrequited love, and feelings of inadequacy. But the more you pay attention to the characters, or specifically Hank since he gives life to Manny in the first place, a new, more specific reading becomes apparent.
Halfway through the film Manny asks Hank to help jog his memory of life by dressing up as Sarah. Hank does, fashioning a dress and wig out of discarded upholstery, and recreating the bus where he would always see her writing. From the bus, Hank helps jog Manny’s memories of dinner dates, afternoon drives, and dance parties all while dressed as Sarah.
Rather than being in love with Sarah, it seems Hank more wants to be her, and is struggling with his gender identity, and what that means. Suicidal tendencies, isolation, and feelings of worthlessness are all common feelings to people with gender dysphoria. Wanting to run away is another.
Hank doesn’t seem to act like the stereotypical male when asked what you are supposed to imagine when looking at a woman in Sports Illustrated. He instead tells a story of falling in love, signing a lease, and watching Netflix. And towards the end of the film when asked by Sarah why her picture in his phone he says, “You just seemed really happy, and I wasn’t.”
It’s never directly mentioned in the film but when you remember that Manny is a projection of Hank’s subconscious Manny’s lines become clear. When Hank and Manny are hanging from a utility bridge with a bed sheet, whether purposefully or not, wrapped around Hank’s neck, Manny screams, “Hank, I think I’m feeling fear!” Those thoughts are Hank’s, not Manny’s, realizing he doesn’t want to die. And when Manny suggests Hank should dress up as a girl, it was Hank’s subconscious wishing him to. Hank doesn’t want to be with Sarah. He designs a world so he can live as Sarah. And when he tries to kill himself for the final time, and his life flashes before his eyes, it’s the moments he is her that he sees.
Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Swiss Army Man has gotten mixed reviews, and a mediocre 69% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film is cryptic, to be sure, but anything having to do with LGBT issues is oddly absent from any of their interviews— save when they joke about making a gay necrophilia movie. They have stuck with the generic “embrace your weirdness,” message, but maybe if they embraced the seemingly apparent gender identity symbolism, the film would have gotten more than a 7/10.
Maybe the DANIELS didn’t realize what they were writing, but reading Hank’s internal struggle as gender dysphoria gives the film a new relevance and poignancy. The main character isn’t only a depressed, suicidal man. And a talking, farting corpse isn’t just comedic relief, but an insightful metaphor for the discomfort and revulsion many gay and trans people face when coming to terms with themselves.
With this reading, all of the charades make sense, and Hank’s final lines to Manny shed a new light on their character arc:
I just wanted to give you all the things in life that everyone else gets to have and all the things I thought I didn't deserve to have till I met you. / And they might laugh at us. They might call us names, and they might think we're weird, but it doesn't matter what they think.
By the end, reflecting on the magical time they spent in the forest together, Hank doesn’t seem ready to return to reality. But he does, because what choice does he have? The final scene leads us to feel cautiously optimistic for Hank’s future and his new self-awareness. He took the love he felt with Manny as proof that all it takes is just one person to be okay with who you are, and sealed it with a fart.
Swiss Army Man Available free on Amazon Prime. Watch it while it lasts.