There have been movies about dead bodies (Warm Bodies, Weekend at Bernie’s) and there have been movies about robots/clones/children learning about the beauty of the world, but this is the first coming of age story about a corpse.
In Swiss Army Man, Hank (Paul Dano) is stranded on a small island in the middle of the ocean. He’s about to hang himself when he notices a body (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on shore. Already on the edge of sanity, Hank desperately tries to wake up the dead body.
Instead, the corpse farts, and Hank understands that there’s no hope. He takes off the corpse’s belt and strengthens his homemade noose. The corpse keeps farting, however, and Hank is distracted. He wants his death to be beautiful even though he thinks his life might not have been. Hank tries to sing over the ambient farts, but it’s just too distracting. That’s when he discovers the corpse starting up like a motor boat. As you might guess, Hank rides the corpse to land.
Despite his weakened state, Hank can’t let himself leave the life-saving corpse behind. He drags the body with him through the woods and tries to talk to the body.
“Okay buddy,” is the first clear thing the corpse, soon called Manny, says to Hank.
While Manny helps Hank survive, he mostly helps pass the time as he’s full of questions and gas. Hank teaches Manny about the world and certain societal norms. One of these being that farting is something you don’t do in front of other people. Manny is wide-eyed and curious about everything, so Hank teaches him through elaborate set-building and acting.
Hank brings Manny into his own personal world, and they re-enact memories that Manny thinks belong to him. This happens after Manny sees Hank’s phone desktop photo: An attractive woman on a bus. Convinced this is his phone from when he was alive, Manny is motivated to return home and find this woman.
In reality she is just someone who rides the same bus as Hank. Hank shows Manny what it’s like to sit on a bus and watch the world pass by. He does this by constructing most of a bus, complete with stick figures and himself acting as “Sarah,” the name Manny gives this woman from the phone. It’s a memory they share because it’s very personal to Hank and it’s one Manny is convinced is his own, the first step to remembering who he once was.
In the end they survive a long plunge into a river, a bear attack and making it back to the civilized world. Instead of rejoicing when they flag down help, the two are split up almost for good. Recognizing that Sarah doesn’t know him, Manny loses hope and goes back to being dead.
The coroner arrives and zips Manny up into a body bag, ready to ship him off. Hank then steals the body and rides it down the forest slope and back onto the beach. We feel for him, wanting Manny to wake up, but we also watch him like the small group of onlookers, including Sarah and the police.
Hank looks and sounds like a madman, and we wonder if the entire story was in his head. Then Hank farts in front of Manny, and Manny wakes up and speeds off into the ocean.
So it’s a story about two people returning to life, one dead and one ready to die. As Manny learns about the way the world works, he realizes he’s disgusting and might just be trash, like the actual trash they find in the forest. But just as they build beautiful sets and structures out of the trash they uncover, Manny is a useful and necessary but gross resource. Hank tries to make him feel better by saying everyone is gross. We’re all just “dying sacks of shit,” he says as he’s literally being dragged away from his friend by a large bear. This is when Manny manages to crawl far enough to scare away the bear and save his friend. They are united as one after admitting that dying and becoming shit isn’t so bad, especially since one person’s shit will mix with another person’s shit and everyone will be united.
The other characters in the end are all horrified and put off by Hank interacting with Manny’s dead body. It’s hard to believe, after all. We see this from their perspective. It’s cringey and you start to wonder if Hank really is crazy (because that would make sense). So even though we’ve spent an entire film with these two characters, we start to question Hank, putting more distance between us and him, just like the other characters. The movie is telling us: You do the same thing. Part of being human is being a little judgmental and guarded. It’s not easy to drop all preconceived notions and embrace something outside of yourself, but the least we can do is try.