The above reworked film poster, by artist Joe Wilson, epitomizes what might either draw viewers away from Swiss Army Man, or what might bring them closer to appreciating the allegorical insight that it’s directors expanded upon. I’ll admit, I found it hilarious almost every time there was a farting sound. On the other hand, writer/director duo DANIELS had much more in mind when they decided to use such socially obscene gestures throughout the entire film, especially when pairing them with darker psychological and social backdrops, all set up beautifully alongside Manchester Orchestra’s emotive score.
If you haven’t yet seen the film but are reading reviews anyways, the brief synopsis of Swiss Army is as follows: A man (Paul Dano) comes across a dead body (Danielle Radcliffe) while on a deserted island, and he uses the body—eventually dubbed “Manny”—to help him find his way back to civilization. On a deeper level, it is no more a simple story than it is a documentation of one broken man’s journey through a low point in his life.
Whether or not you’re put off by the film as a whole, it might at least be worth appreciating the variety of modalities presented. DANIELS manages peel back somber layer after somber layer against a comedic backdrop. Overall, it’s impressive that Swiss Army Man adheres to the use of color to bring its themes together. Thus, here is brief analysis of its color symbolism, followed by a breakdown of connecting themes.
SWISS ARMY MAN (2016) Manny in the suit (Radcliffe) and Hank(Dano) in Plaid.
The following colors are highlighted in Swiss Army Man:
Red: compassion, anger, excitement, power, vengeance, violence
Blue: tranquility, truth, trust, comfort, commitment, stability, calmness
White: precision, purity, peace, reverence, love, innocence
Yellow: happiness, warmth, optimism, enlightenment, creativity
Green(NATURE): inexperience, self-awareness, renewal, life, vigor
Hank and the cooler that almost killed him.
Hank’s main representational color is red; in the opening scene we see him in his plaid red shirt, using a red cooler as a step to hang himself above. His pants are a neutral, earthy tone. It’s worth noting that the plaid shirt he wears during the entire film has some yellow and green interspersed within it, likely symbolic of his ongoing struggle to find true self-awareness and happiness; all of which he seems to place on unrequited romance and relationships. He also dons white shirt on underneath, perhaps showcasing his social inexperience and innocence.
In his flashbacks when he’s on the bus with Sarah, he’s wearing another plaid shirt with similar colors. Towards the beginning of the film when he’s rummaging through the woods, he also comes across a solid red sweater that he wears for a large portion of the film. Hank begins to don the red sweater around the same time that he starts falling deeper into his developing fantasy world with Manny.
You’ll notice that Hank still has his red plaid shirt on in the end of the film. As explained with some of the themes below, there’s a reason why his primary color didn’t change: Some of his character traits did noticeably evolve throughout the film, but his overall drift from society –and elopement with fantasy–did not.
Manny (front) and Hank (back) pretending to interact with Sarah
Manny’s primary color is blue, and it’s made pretty obvious. His suit is a solid blue, while his shirt is a white and blue pinstripe. His belt is blue and green, but it’s last seen when Hank uses it to hang himself the 2nd time. Seeing as Manny is the character foil for Hank, it’s fitting and expected that his primary color is blue. Interestingly, Hank uses a white sheet to transport and wrap Manny in throughout the movie, and it has blue and red triangles on it.
Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winsted) as depicted through most of the film.
For essentially the entire film, we are only provided with one image of Sarah, in which she has red hair and red journal, white sweater, and a yellow dress. Her yellow dress is the most prominent piece of clothing, appropriate for fueling Hank and Manny’s feelings of romanticism, warmth, appreciation, and optimism that are connected with her. As a side note: the same enamored reaction is given to the woman in the Sports Illustrated magazine. She has a yellow bathing suit on. The use of yellow symbolizes the idealized, unrealistic expectations placed on relationships and love, specifically in relation to the women in the film. I think it’s safe to say that the red—specifically the journal, as its shown many times—foreshadows the unhealthy obsession and disappointment to come from such idealizations.
Law of Diminishing Return: Also known as the Law of Varying Proportions, this essentially depicts the point at which the amount of energy invested in something begin to outweigh the return profit. While the idea of diminishing return is first mentioned to Hank’s decreasing interest in masturbation the more he attempted to it, it’s actually meant to serve as a microcosm for (1) Hank’s obsession with Sarah and (2) Hank’s deep imaginary relationship with Manny, which ends up being a replacement for his obsession with Sarah.
Throughout the film, we discover that Hank went from seeing Sarah on the public bus, to taking her picture, to following her on social media, and possibly stalking her. Unable to make a move or communicate with her, all of his energy proves a waste, and he gets no return investment from her. Exhausted, depressed, and feeling outcast in general, Hank had reached the point of diminished return, which brings us to the opening scene of the movie: Hank is attempting suicide and, judging by the ending of the movie, we can probably assume he was actually somewhere near Sarah’s house when he tried to attempt it.
Then upon seeing Manny’s body wash up on shore, Hank is provided with a distraction from reality. While the situation ultimately saves him from attempting suicide, it sets him up for another diminishing return. Once Manny becomes animated, Hank begins to put in Maximum effort again, this time to create an imaginary world where he wouldn’t even need Sarah. It’s clear during the film that he still has Sarah on his mind, and even uses Manny to filter her…however, Hank also develops romantic feelings for Manny. Furthermore, during the campfire/bear scene, Hank brings up the idea of not returning to society; the two joke about starting their own band, living in their own world, etc. However, since Manny’s deep friendship is nothing short of imaginary, its bound to catch up with Hank at some point. Hank is subconsciously aware that Manny is dead, and emotionally investing in a fantasy life with him is as much a waste of energy as investing his time in Sarah. Thus, when he senses reaching the Law of Diminishing Return with Manny, he reverts to one last-ditch effort to try and get Sarah’s attention: showing up in her backyard.
**I believe this theme is even more expansive and deservers more exploration, especially in relation to how mental health, self-discovery, and self-confidence are portrayed in this film. I don’t have time to expand on it at the moment, but will probably leave this section as a work-in-progress. **
Man vs nature:
This is perhaps the least expansive theme of the four, however, it remains a vital backdrop throughout Swiss Army Man. At first, Hank struggles to survive in the wilderness before discovering Manny’s “swiss army knife” capabilities, he eventually learns to embrace the freedom that comes from being in Nature. Having stepped away from an evolved, civilized society, both protagonists now find themselves in a setting where they can create their own world without judgment. It’s only fitting, seeing as they are railing against the same society…which we later realize Hank left on purpose either for cognizant reasons, psychological distress, or both.
Thus, partway through the film, the struggle of Man V (literal) Nature morphs into man struggling versus his own nature, which transmutes into the next major theme:
Hank and Manny holding hands on “The Bus”
Man vs Himself:
As soon as Hank and Manny safely adapt to their natural surroundings, the forest transitions into a mere setting for Hank’s personal exploration. It’s no coincidence that the corpse ends up having the name “Manny”. The name serves to communicate the dynamic struggle between Hank(himself) versus Man(ny), the latter representing another version of Hank himself. Doubling as Hank’s foil, Manny has everything Hank doesn’t: no insecurities, no fears, no past or context to define him, and therefore ultimately no limitations to the life he can create. Hank uses the blank canvas to his own advantage and starts exploiting Manny’s character to help explore his own. Eventually, he takes it too far, to the point where he starts living vicariously through Manny. At that point, Hank is leading both of them to believe that Sarah is a woman in Manny’s life, not Hanks.
While Hank has small areas of personal growth throughout the film (again, all experienced vicariously through his imagination of Manny) such as forming a deeper connection with someone, exploring confidence, and creatively adapting to his surroundings, he still fails to be fully comfortable with himself. Before the final scenes, he pretends to be Manny and acquires his identity when the police question him.
It’s only in the final scene where we see that Hank is comfortable with both the new and old parts of himself. In a subtle way, he acknowledges that he’s still an outcast of “normal” society, but that he embraces it. He also embraces the newfound freedom and self-confidence he has, hence his open admittance of farting in the in the final scene. He also doesn’t fight his arrest at the end, after envisioning his ideal farewell to Manny.
Actor Paul Dano, who plays Hank, provides further explanation regarding the character development:
“For me, it’s probably about loving yourself, kind of? I think it’s about learning to have fun and be happy again. I think it’s about connection and finding your people in this world, where you can be yourself…[T]he singing in the film, along with the farting and the boner jokes, is a reminder that humans in nature revert to a state without artificially imposed stigmas or shame. Singing in the film was something that really reminded me of being a younger and freer person in the world, because kids sing all the time, without thinking about it. In the woods, we sort of got a reprieve. It was truly make-believe, different from other films.” Source: Observer
Individual vs Society
As we learn about Hank’s social estrangement in regards to his family, love life, and intrapersonal situations in general, it becomes clear that he believes he doesn’t fit in with society. The directors do an impressive job using the exploration of Man V Nature and Man V Man themes, gracefully highlighting the trauma that Hank feels as a social outcast. Daniels’ also pay homage to this theme in the “bonding” montage, specifically where Hank uses puppets to re-enact films. All of the films re-enacted are those which carried the main theme of misunderstood individuals/groups vs Society: E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Godzilla, Jurassic Park, etc
As with the other themes, it’s not until the final scenes of the film where the scale of his detachment from society comes to fruition. Moreover, Hank seems to have an emotional and/or psychological detachment from reality as well.An interesting take that Swiss Army Man has on this theme is that while the protagonist Hank succeeded in finding himself, it did not work out to his overall advantage. While he’s at peace with himself and has won the Man vs Himself battle, in the end he’s still seen as outcast to the rest of society, actually even moreso than before.
Regardless, by the end of the film, the Daniels directors have managed to merge all of these themes together in the film’s final, iconic “It was me…” farting scene, where Hank is comfortable with both himself, his imagined animation of Manny, and his awareness of how society now views him.