What message does “Swiss Army Man” send on social norms and self-delusion?


Quick Answer: Swiss Army Man deals with the theme of lying. The film shows how we become deluded by our lies to ourselves and others, allowing mistaken assumptions of weirdness to disconnect us from our truer selves and reality. It tells us to shake off the expectations and norms we have come to hold as law and see the world with more juvenile eyes — to do what makes us happy without worrying about the expectations of others, even if that means falling in love with a corpse.

Lies surround us, from the lies we tell each other to the lies we tell ourselves. Swiss Army Man (2016) deals in such lies by creating a relationship in which these two types of lies are one and the same. Swiss Army Man is the story of a suicidal man trying to convince a corpse that life is worth living. As the two are lost in the woods, Hank (Paul Dano) must explain what society is like to the amnesiac corpse of Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) in order to bring him back to life. The more motivated Manny becomes, the more powers his body develops to help them escape the forest. These conversations reveal the ways in which societal norms Hank has been taught manifest themselves as lies to Manny. By presenting constructed social norms as fact, Hank reveals the way he lies to himself, repressing his deepest desires, and in the process lies to Manny about the way the real world truly functions.

One of the recurring lies in the film is that of the “good life” – the ideal life that we are raised to strive for. In the opening sequence of the film, Hank accidentally hangs himself when he sees Manny. The rope snaps, and he goes on to confide in the corpse that has washed up on the beach. He says, “I always hoped my life would flash before my eyes and I’d see wonderful things.” He elaborates that he would want to see a life full of parties, friends, a girlfriend – the good life. Hank wants a selective memory of the good times. These are the things Hank believes will bring him happiness. In order to convince Manny that life is worth living, Hank insists that these are the best things in life, the things worth living for, the things Manny must have left behind when he died. As Hank notes, there are 7 billion people running around looking for happiness in friends, girlfriends, or one true loves. In this way, Hank teaches Manny that one finds happiness in other people.

Manny projects this “good life” ideal onto the photo of a mysterious woman, Sarah, on Hank’s phone. Hank took a picture of her from afar on the bus, similarly fantasizing about the life he might live with her. Manny wonders if he knew her in the life he left behind, since he is so attracted to her. If he is returning to a good life in society, clearly he must have a girlfriend. Hank lets him believe this so that Manny can help them get out of the forest. In order to bring Manny’s memory back, Hank sets out to teach Manny the societal norms that would allow him to start a relationship with her. He teaches Manny how to look cool, how to flirt appropriately, and generally how to be the type of person a woman would want. But these are artificial laws and constraints, arbitrarily created within society, which Hank props up as fundamental truths. Hank constructs an entire fantasy world for Manny and him (dressed as Sarah) to live out this ideal life – going on road trips, eating out at a diner, throwing parties, etc. As Hank teaches Manny the ideal ways in which to act and interact with others in society, Hank responds with questions and, at times, confusion. This inevitably leads to Hank telling Manny what he can’t do – the things that are socially unacceptable, like flagrantly farting in public. As Hank guides Manny through the conventions of normalized society, he teaches him about the societal construction of “weird.”

Weirdness in Swiss Army Man is used to explore the ways in which we limit ourselves in an attempt to be seen as acceptable. This is primarily seen in the metaphor of masturbation. Manny asks Hank what “weird” is, and he responds, “Weird is when you do stuff nobody else does and they make fun of you.” Hank tells a story about how his mom didn’t want him to masturbate and died soon after their conversation. As a result, Hank can’t masturbate without thinking of his mother, a fact that made him the subject of constant teasing. Later, while addressing “Sarah” (Hank in a wig), Manny relates Hank’s story, noting that if masturbation would make him happy, then he should not deny himself just because society doesn’t approve. Though Manny is ostensibly talking about masturbation, the subtext is Hank and Manny’s relationship; if Hank’s falling in love with Manny would make him happy, he should not deny himself that happiness even though Manny is a corpse.

This idea, that one can find happiness outside of the constraints of society by pursuing happiness through one’s own means, is later broken for Manny. When he shows off his body powers to Sarah’s daughter, she breaks down crying because she finds him disgusting. Hank tries to explain that people in regular society cannot use or appreciate Manny’s strange corporeal abilities. Manny learns this the hard way, and it shakes him so deeply that he falls dead once more, broken by the idea that living freely as one’s self is impossible in the real world. This idea is so pervasive that even in the forest, living only with a farting corpse, Hank hides his farts from Manny, demonstrating the grip that proper society has over Hank. “If you hide your farts,” Manny inquires with equal parts naiveté and accuracy, “what else are you hiding from me?”

Indeed, Hank is hiding something from Manny. In addition to hiding his flatulence, Hank leads him to believe that the cell phone belongs to Manny and that Sarah is awaiting his return. This manipulation convinces Manny to bring the pair back to safety. In turn, Manny realizes the harsh reality that the “good life” Hank holds in such high regard is just a false ideal to give him hope. By the time the film starts, the suicidal Hank has long realized that the life he once imagined is beyond his reach. He was on his way to having the same fate as Manny, who we later learn jumped off of a bridge. The false nature of the “good life” is incredibly disillusioning for Manny, who wishes he was dead again. That said, Manny’s coming to terms with the difficulty of reality allows him nearly full control of his body. In an optimistic last-ditch effort to help Hank find the life Manny thinks he deserves, Manny carries Hank to Sarah’s house. But the young girl’s reaction to Manny breaks him. It is only once Hank brings Manny to the beach and farts in front of him that Manny can finally be revived, his purpose complete. Hank has come to terms with his life and his own happiness, no longer caring what other people think. By displaying his farts loud and proud, Hank is able to transcend society’s expectations of him. Manny’s journey allowed Hank to realize how he had been lying to himself, and finally, to live freely.