My wife and I have recently returned to re-watching one of our favorite TV shows ever, The Office. In a show filled with lovable and distinct characters, my favorite character will always and shall ever be Steve Carell’s Michael Scott. Ever the misunderstood superior, hapless father figure, and befuddled courtier of the ladies, the Regional Manager of the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin connected with assorted goofballs and half-wits, but with all people because of how he personified the brokenness and isolation of the modern person.
Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s indie breakout and Sundance-debuting movie, Swiss Army Man, tells a darker story of an even more broken man. It opens with main character Hank, played by Paul Dano, deserted on an island and ready to hang himself. When a corpse, played by Daniel Radcliffe, washes up on shore, Hank’s suicide is interrupted. The corpse begins “farting” as it decomposes on the shoreline. Hank quickly discovers he can ride this farting corpse, which he later dubs “Manny”, like a jet ski to safe, dry land. These are merely the first salvos of weirdness and dark humor to be fired in its 97-minute runtime.
And boy, does it get weird. I won’t tell you how it gets weird specifically, to avoid spoiling surprises along the way, but the movie dives deeper and deeper into a surreal dream as Hank begins to disclose his life to this dead person. The closer they get to returning home, the more Manny becomes an empty container into which Hank empties his fears, longings, and brokenness. Returning to Michael Scott, it reminds me of how Michael often used his workplace as a confessional echo chamber. For example, one particular episode where he confesses his loneliness by telling everyone he had no one to add to his cell phone’s “friends and family” plan.
Michael’s cell phone plan becomes an external emblem of Michael’s loneliness, a cell phone serves a similar purpose on Hank’s journey home. He leaves it off most of the time, fearing the battery will run out, but when it is turned on his home screen displays a picture of a girl in a yellow dress. He struggles to recall her name but begins to reconstruct memories, with the help of Manny, of his life with this girl. The nature of their relationship and the circumstances Hank left her in remain a mystery. Is she a girlfriend? Wife? How long has Hank been stranded before he made it back to land? Is the cell phone actually Manny’s? We’re left to wonder as the cellphone functions to develop these memories and surreal fantasy melds with Hank’s current reality in isolation from friends and family.
The movie would be a tough narrative to swallow if not for the comedic elements and the surprisingly charming relationship between a castaway and a dead body. Dano is immensely funny in a role where he does most of the talking, and I don’t recall him in a role being this funny since playing the monastic and stoic Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine. As Hank, Dano becomes a teacher and father figure to the corpse, who knows nothing. He elucidates human existence and pop culture to Manny, all with an off-kilter earnestness and desperate intensity. Manny has become Hank’s final strand connecting him to life and Hank is doing everything he can to hang on, even though his grasp on reality is tenuous.
Manny is his last hope, his only companion, but most of all, he becomes Hank’s friend. It’s charming and original as the movie dives deep into the surreal, it also becomes a buddy comedy. What Hank truly seems to lack in life is a real friend, someone who actually cares for him and wants to be with him despite his odd personality. There were only a few outright guffaw-worthy jokes in the movie, but the clever dialogue as Hank reveals the world to a know-nothing cadaver is consistently clever and contains a handful of great lines.
However, Scheinert and Kwan’s story is mostly about this necessity for real, deep, persevering relationships in an age of shallow status updates and the superficial nature of the internet age. We’ve become so obsessed with knowing everything and everyone we have many relationships that are only surface level. Likewise, internet reality becomes a way to project a perceived or idealized identity to everyone else. The movie spends time reflecting on these things throughout the narrative. In fact, the ending seems to point to the movie being a very long commentary on how the internet has changed the way humans build and maintain relationships. While the ending is up for debate, this third-Fight Club, third-Castaway, third-buddy comedy is well worth your time for its humor, charm, and fart jokes.