A Different Kind of Love: Swiss Army Man
Swiss Army Man’s best moment comes about an hour in. Hank and Manny, the duo that met when Manny (Radcliffe) washed up on the beach of the island that Hank (Dano) decided was a good place, or at least an adequate place - or… at least a place to kill himself, attempt to cross a rushing river by shuffling along a thin pipeline a hundred feat into the air. Below them is certain death, around them is the desolate wilderness they’ve been making their way across, and between them is the unspoken understanding that they met each other for a reason. Hank loses his grip on the pipe, and before the two fall into the water beneath them, their dirt-stained clothes catch on a piece of metal jutting out from the pipeline. It’s suspended a hundred feet in the air - feet dangling, metal creaking, wind howling - that Manny, a half dead farting corpse that’s desperately trying to remember just why he exists, finally understands what it’s like to experience fear. Not of death, mind you, but of the thought that this might really be the last time he sees Hank. “I’m scared because if I die I think I might… really miss you.” The flimsy strip of metal gives way, and they plummet into the river together, where they quickly drift apart underwater - Manny hasn’t learned to swim yet. In a force of will that Hank didn’t know he had, he reaches for Manny’s hand, and pulls his body in closer. Hank kisses Manny, because he thinks it’s the last time he’ll ever get to - but in an act that at this point shouldn’t have surprised Hank, Manny breathes air into Hank’s lungs, and together they float - the fear of drowning is no longer an issue, nor is the fear of drifting apart. I think about that a lot - how Hank impulsively kissed Manny because he wanted to, but through their kiss Manny gave him air to breathe. He didn’t just want to kiss him - he needed it to survive.
It’s hard to say with confidence that Swiss Army Man, the 2016 debut film from directing duo Daniel Scheinert and Dan Kwan, is a love story. It certainly feels like one more often than not - the beautiful story of a hopeless man and his dead friend is filled with so much honest to god compassion, such wide eyed optimism about humanity, such a delicate understanding of love and isolation - that it’s hard to imagine Hank and Manny not being romantically attached. Though it never really portrays the two characters as in love, or it seems to but it’s brushed aside as their adventure continues. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about a miracle like Swiss Army Man, though, is throughout Hank and Manny’s journey, it becomes increasingly evident that whether these two characters are in love or not hardly matters - they exist together, love together, and care about each other deeper than either of them thought imaginable. Throughout their brief time together, Hank gives Manny what he wants, and Manny gives Hank what he needs, and together they learn that those two things are one and the same.
At the heart of it all, Swiss Army Man is a near perfectly executed film about relationships. Delivered with equal parts juvenile humor and scatalogical compassion, the movie is about how relationships are about two people influencing each other and laughing at each other and finding strength in each other’s vulnerabilities. And it’s about how exciting that is, and how scary that is, and how beautiful that is. Hank tries to get this corpse to recall his past the only way he knows how: teaching him about his own. Manny washes up on the beach as a blank canvas, but through their time together he starts to learn what it’s like to see the world through Hank’s lens… or what it’s like to see the world at all. Hank teaches Manny the way the world works based off of his perception of it - what are essential teachings for Manny are just childhood lessons that Hank learned. He tells him about Jurassic Park, about which words are okay to say in public, about the songs that his mom used to sing him before bed so he wouldn’t overthink things. It’s around the moment where Manny asks Hank about masturbation that you realize he’s starting to become his own person… and it’s around the moment where Manny asks Hank if he’s trying to get back home so he can find love that you realize Manny is more than just a compass.
The film affects me so deeply not just because of how magical it is to witness two people finding value in themselves through finding love in each other, but because its outlook on humanity is so overwhelmingly optimistic. It’s based on this firm idea that the world is lonely and judgemental and we’re all going to ostracize and hurt each other and you can let life take its course or you can stand up and fart in public and tell someone that you love them and be weird and stupid and open and that is how you change the world: by loving deeply and by farting loudly.
And like so many great love stories before it, Swiss Army Man reminds us that as impossible as it may seem, love doesn’t last forever. There’s a scene near the end of the film where the two are sitting around the fire, approaching the end of a journey they never really want to get to, and Hank asks why they can’t just live out there in the forest forever. They’re both excited about the idea, but what’s so beautiful about the scene is that they both know that it cannot be. In a story about a man stranded at sea learning to love a farting corpse that can create drinkable water with his mouth and destroy trees with his legs and spark fire with his fingers, the most impossible idea is it lasting forever. Hank and Manny drift apart when they both learn that they’ve given each other everything they have to give.
And as hard as it is to accept, that’s love… and that’s life.