We don’t want to face the fact that everything we are is so temporary.
Our posts online, our professional contributions, our social interactions – all of them are fleeting. So damned much of it would go on without us, and so damned much of it could end entirely without leaving us any say. Hell, the very bodies we inhabit are so fading and fragile. We are walking, talking pieces of organic matter that will stop functioning with age and eventually decay outright and disappear into nothing.
So if our personalities push insignificance, and our forms so feeble, what does that make us? What does it mean to be human?
Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded upon a deserted island. Deeply despaired, he decides to take his own life. It’s that moment, with a makeshift noose around his neck, and a step to fall from that he lays eyes on a person washed up in the surf (Daniel Radcliffe). His suicide is postponed as he bounds across the beach to the first person he’s seen in a long time. This allows him to pretty much ride him like a jet ski away from the island.
The pair wash-up on the shores of the woods, still a fair distance from civilization. It’s right around then that Hank begins to talk to the body (which he has named “Manny”), and to his great surprise, Manny begins to talk back to him.
Hank soon sees how integral Manny will be to his survival. On a practical level, there’s his skills with propulsion, his knack of spewing potable water from his mouth, and his ability to be turned into something of a human air cannon (to name but a few). He also finds Manny’s cell phone, with just a tiny bit of battery life left. On the lock screen he sees the image of a pretty girl (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), and asks Manny who she is.
Manny remembers that she is Sara, a girl he saw on the bus every day…a girl he always wished he could talk to. The discussion seems to get a rise out of Manny, and Hank sees her as part of the key to his rescue. He wants Manny to remember her – body and soul. Bit by bit, Hank rebuilds what Manny remembers in the hopes of helping him live for just a few moments longer…and perhaps to help Hank himself understand what living truly feels like.
This movie very easy could have become a gimmick. Daniel Radcliffe handily could have turned into a volleyball with a body, or could have become the prop that can do anything. In a lesser film, every one of his physical capabilities would have been a scene all its own. We would have been subjected to a gimmick where every one of Manny’s talents is discovered and put to use. Instead, the film realizes that there’s more to be gained by Manny and Hank conversing, rather than Hank talking to himself. Likewise it understands that not every one of Manny’s talents needs an entire scene of exposition.
Likewise, the possibility of this becoming “The Farting Corpse Movie” was off the chart.
Instead, the film wisely spends its precious minutes letting one man and one corpse develop a deeper appreciation for the life they left behind. The film becomes a love poem to a life half lived; to feelings of unworthiness, and misunderstanding of just what it is to be alive.
Once we come to realize how desperate Hank has become, we understand how such damage could lead to conversations with a flatulent corpse. He has collapsed so far in upon himself. He has become filled with despair and anxiety. Even when we get glimmers of him back in civilization, we get the feeling that he was lost there too. In those moments, we recognize him. He’s that person at work who doesn’t engage in polite small talk, or the stranger on the train with the nervous expression.
What does a missed connection mean to such people? What do unrequited feelings of love mean? Is it possible that all might be made better by an appreciation of the world going by outside the carriage window? Or would not even a returned smile be enough to lift them because they are then crippled by what comes next.
In that moment, the question of “what now?” can be daunting. Perhaps that’s why Hank seems to gain so much solace from explaining the ways of the world to Manny. By taking the lead – in a sense, explaining life itself to his newfound friend – he is able to feel more confident, if only for a moment. The world has to make sense for him, because he has to be able to make it make sense to someone else. He’s not just taking charge of his own quest for survival, he’s taking charge of the very world around him, and it makes him feel more connected to it.
It’s difficult to illustrate this in a film, and yet SWISS ARMY MAN does it so effortlessly and with so much charm.
Whether we are stranded by ourselves on an island or surrounded by hundreds of commuters on the 6pm bus, many of us feel alone. There are real feelings of isolation and anxiety that seem like they might fall away if we could find just one footprint in the sand. The desire is enough to make one go to great lengths, and sometimes even bring upon great harm. It’s a sad state of affairs, and one that invites a lot of judgement, but those of us lucky enough to not feel so isolated probably shouldn’t judge too quickly.
After all, it might not take much for us to get stranded on an island ourselves…then what would we do?