Swiss Army Man (2016)

“His Man Saturday Through Friday”

swiss army man

Swiss Army Man, the perplexing first feature film by Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan seems designed to replicate Ambrose Bierce’s short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890). Shipwrecked and alone, Hank (Paul Dano) is attempting to hang himself outside of a cave on a beach. Just as he is about to let go, Hank spots another body in the surf. The shock causes Hank to stumble. However, just as he begins to asphyxiate, the rope breaks, allowing Hank to investigate the corpse, Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) who it turns out has an array of magical powers.

As things proceed to get Surrealistically strange—Manny’s penis functions like a compass, his flatulent anus, a propulsion system—it seems likely that Swiss Army Man will end with the entire film’s events having been the last imaginative moments of Hank’s brain before his death on the noose. However, the Daniels duo works a different literary intertext; much of the plot of Swiss Army Man is instead built around Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719).

Both Hank and Crusoe fashion a home out of a cave, invoking Plato’s The Republic, an allegory for the triumph of the multi-dimensional knowing of civilization over the flat experience of savage nature. Crusoe trains Friday in the same fashion Hank trains Manny about the ways of society. Crusoe’s struggle with religion is blasphemed when Hank scribbles in crayon the story of “Everybody Poops” for Manny’s edification in a discarded copy of the Holy Bible.

Robinson Crusoe caricatures the travelogue, presenting a fictionalized autobiography that brings into being a new, multiply-voiced expression of human complexity, the novel. In Mikhail Bakhtin’s terms, the novel is dialogical, expressing many different points-of-view on the same reality which surrounds us. Defoe uses this new form to express the complexities of the 18th century British individual, one who believes in the inherent goodness of civilized humanity, but engages in the imperial extermination of those deemed barbarous.

Swiss Army Man directs Defoe’s novelistic form not at the invention of the modern individual, but instead at his early 21st century fall into disrepair. Hank’s relationship to Manny is not one of colonial mastery, as was Crusoe’s domain over Friday, precisely because Hank is in no position to dominate anything. The film’s central metaphor, that Hank lives in a world of detritus, is revealed by the end to refer to the characters themselves.

Hank emerges out of the forest into the suburban backyard of a middle-class home, greeted by a cherubic girl, Chrissy. Despite the threat to her family—Hank has to hide Manny’s erection from Chrissy’s line of sight—the girl’s mother, Sarah sees Hank as he truly is, a discarded homeless man, and offers him a glass of water. When Chrissy runs into the forest, she draws the film’s camera back into Hank’s world, now revealed not as a paradise, but as the lair of a so-called derelict.

Yet the profound experience of witnessing the developing bond between Hank and Manny, which engages both the love of self and a desire for the companionship of others, is not negated by this ending. Instead, the film’s realistic ending about the plight of the homeless in America is allowed to sit comfortably beside the film’s fantasy of human connectedness.

Swiss Army Man presents Hank as a creative artist, one who recreates the banal world the rest of us live in as meaningfully beautiful. Using only the most basic of art tools—tape and scissors—Hank recreates for Manny the world he has abandoned within the tranquility of the Platonic cave that is his homeless retreat. Hank places photographs on a rotating diorama, amidst his recreation of the bus rides when he fell in love with Sarah, unseen by her because of his alienated social status. For Manny, Hank dresses up as Sarah, a dialogical ability to emotionally identify both with his subjective longing for her on the bus, and her psychological status as the object of his devotion.

Is Manny some sort of psychological projection of Hank’s? Probably, but such a description returns Swiss Army Man to the world of the short story, to the reductive gimmick of the play of one’s memory at the moment of death in “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” The Daniels’ film refuses such a reduction just to satisfy a conventional desire for narrative clarity.

The result is a breathtakingly cluttered film, where the detritus of civilization litters the image, forcing us to re-assemble its material shards. Swiss Army Man is a Robinson Crusoe for a world where the colonizing gaze has imploded, reflected back upon those who formerly sought mastery but destroyed themselves in spectacular failure.

–Walter Metz