Home is where the Fart is: Swiss Army Man

Every person is an island. No matter how big the world seems, no matter how far reaching our stories are, ultimately our lives are insular. Specific, distinct, devoid from others.

And sometimes, a person is on an island.

That’s where we find Hank (Paul Dano) at the outset of Swiss Army Man (2016, Daniels). A lone man is stranded on an island so small you can throw a rock from one coast and hit the other. His figure stands out in solitude on this little spot of land as blatantly as the island itself stands out in the vast emptiness of the ocean that surrounds it. His loneliness forced him to run away, and in doing so, he ended up lonelier than he ever hoped to be. 

That is, until another figure joins him. Not a person, or a man, but a thing. An ex-man, a bloated rotting corpse (played with vigour by Daniel Radcliffe) that we’ll later come to know as Manny. One who is similar to Hank and who also ran away from his problems, but didn’t have the good fortune to end up living with them.

The tableau we’re left with now is more crowded, but no less lonely: two bodies now occupying this same little piece of land.

As Hank approaches Manny’s lifeless corpse, something miraculous happens. Whether by some magical power, or the dwindling sense of his own mind, Manny is imbued with the ability to propel himself across the ocean by the power of his own farts. Finally finding salvation from his loneliness, Hank does the only thing that seems sensible to him on this twisted lonely little island: he begins to sing.

The two of them jet off into the further emptiness of the great ocean, with a chorus of song and farts soundtracking their new direction.

And that’s when I knew everything would be okay.

I sometimes feel like I’m on an island, stranded somewhere against my choosing, trying to survive and making the most of the situation the universe deemed where I’d be placed.

Or maybe I am the island. I lay asleep by day and sit upright at night, waiting for the moment that the birds stop chirping while the world turns quiet around me, and quiet finally beckons me to begin living.

So, if I can’t decide what or where the island is, how do I know how to get back home? How does anyone know where home even is?

How do you know how to escape, where your orchestra plays you off?

Swiss Army Man presents a simple answer to this question: home is where you fart.

Hank is knocked out on his ride along the water and the two find themselves on another mysterious shore, dotted with trees as far as the eye can see. They make their way together through this endless forest with one goal propelling them: find home.

It’s a common story trope to have a character encounter another who represents the next step in their negative progression: to be the wake-up call to show them what may happen if they continue down their darkest path, and hopefully be the catalyst to have them turn them around and set things right. Think Luke seeing himself in Darth Vader’s helmet, or Superman seeing the kind of man he’d have grown up to become without love as Zod, or Tommy the Green Power Ranger fighting his evil clone, Tom. Because without having it shoved right in your nose, sometimes it’s hard to understand your destination until you’ve already arrived, and it’s too late to make your way back.

That’s Manny’s role in this film. As they venture through the forest, Hank literally dragging Manny along or carrying him on his back, Manny has questions. Lots of them. What a bus is, where food goes in, where food comes back out, what a cellphone is, why his body feels a certain way about the scantily clad women in the magazine. Hank finds himself needing to voice out the basic tenets of life that we all take for granted. How do you describe Wi-Fi to a corpse? Manny knows he had a life before death but can’t find those memories, and Hank is tasked with trying his best to help him remember.

Hank uses the empty habitat of the forest to recreate scenes from the outside world: combining sticks, twigs, and endless amounts of discarded trash, he depicts all manner of scenes for Manny to experience. Old mops become red wigs, a plastic sheet becomes a bus window, an old bedspread becomes a vibrant movie screen.

Before our very eyes the barren environment is filled with light – junk is repurposed into life and beauty. Hank explains to Manny that trash is things that other people don’t want, to which Manny makes the observation of “Well we’re not wanted, does that make us trash?”

Hank is quick to refute this, saying they’re not trash at all. But honestly, is he right? And if he isn’t, is being trash really a bad thing? For almost an hour now, we’ve watched Hank create splendor out of his habitat from discarded items, mirroring the minutiae of reality from only his own memories and the scraps at his disposal. 

It’s not unlike Plato’s classic allegory of the cave, wherein the reality of projected images that we observe and the actual objects projecting them are two different things. This is illustrated literally in the film as Hank crafts the mirage of films for Manny to watch, recreating Jurassic Park using stick figures being blasted by light and having that shadow presented on a screen.

As they move along this path, they leave things behind. Their experiences and memories taken shape, left as waypoints. When somebody else stumbles across them, those too will be considered trash, something left because it was unwanted. That’s where Hank fails, where his lessons never materialize. He takes nothing with him, his lessons are footprints instead of stepping stones.

We all know the old adage “one’s man’s trash, another’s treasure”, but Swiss Army Man presents a new perspective: everything is trash. Everyone is too. We’re all just little pieces of garbage co-habitating in our big trash piles, and it’s up to us to transform it and ourselves into something miraculous. Maybe I’m trash, maybe I live among trash, and maybe that’s not something to be ashamed of. 

Perhaps trash isn’t something that’s unwanted, but something that has yet to be designated with new purpose once it’s been used. The letters that I’m compiling into words right now, and the words then being put into sentences are worthless without order. The habitat that I live in, the digital space where the text I write inhabits, and the forest where Hank and Manny had their journey aren’t that far removed from one another. They’re all spaces filled with scraps without purpose, just waiting to be ordered into meaning.

Hank pulls his phone out occasionally throughout their journey to try and find reception to contact help. Manny finds himself immensely attracted to the woman photographed on the phone’s lock screen, who he later comes to know as Sarah (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Manny thinks the phone is his and begins falling in love with her, believing her to be someone who loved him from his past, and the desire to return home to her becomes his guiding light. 

The actuality of course being that he has no connection to her and is in fact from Hank’s life, but there’s one final secret wrinkle: she never loved Hank (or Manny) at all. Sarah didn’t even know he existed. She’s just a woman Hank saw every day and he traded his courage for obsession. Yet Hank imbues his sad masquerade onto Manny, dressing up as Sarah and recreating dating environments for Manny to relive what he assumes are his happiest memories. 

Like a cruel puppet master, he bobs Manny’s physical body around as his does his emotions. Hank only knows lies and obsession, so from his perspective, that’s the least cruel way to handle Manny’s naiveté. By making their relationship a lie, he makes Manny’s whole purpose a lie, and the home he’s decided on being nothing at all. “You want to go home so you can have love, but you ran away ‘cause nobody loves you,” Manny tells him earlier in the film, and that becomes his guiding lie in contrast to Manny’s: Manny is running towards someone, Hank is running away.

Finally this all comes to a head when Hank finally finds reception and his very first act is to scroll Sarah’s social media. He sees the truth he always knew but was too frightened to confront, and too afraid to share with Manny: Sarah has a family and she is happy. Her home, her island, isn’t with them. Hank finally breaks the truth to Manny, who doesn’t take it well at all. His body begins to shut down and his thoughts overwhelm both their heads.

At this moment, when his thoughts and tears start pouring out, Hank catches a glimpse of a car driving on a road beside them. The moment he could open up, the moment he could be honest and truthful, he finds the path home for them. Hank and Manny seemingly being trapped in this inescapable forest when, in reality, their journey is moving parallel to a great big highway, one they could see if they only turned towards it feels something of a metaphor. Their truth is so easy to grasp, but is just out of reach, and it all takes is a slight shift in perspective to find. 

Manny calls out Hank for all he’s done, all he thought he was given, but was actually being taken from him. “It was never even mine, why didn’t you tell me?” he says in reference to the cellphone, but really referring to the whole life he was presented. Even if the environment changed, from his perspective, he never really left that first island. The place where his blank slate began to take form. The place where the very first thing he did was share a fart with Hank–the fart of their salvation. “But hold on a minute”, he realizes, “Hank has never shared a fart with me!” 

Manny takes offense at this. Why does Hank seemingly share so much, and yet still hides his farts? Why is that too personal to share?

Hank can put his trust into Manny, but not enough to fart in front of him. He keeps those secret, just for himself. His secret farts.

Because he hasn’t grown, hasn’t learned his lessons. He’s still stuck on that island. Or maybe he is the island.

Hank ultimately doesn’t learn anything. His journey is a circular one, an ouroboros sniffing its own farts. He falls prey to the same vices, his insights shine no brighter, and by the very end he finds himself returning to the very same beach that he began his journey on. There and back again.

That’s because these lessons aren’t for Hank to find: they’re for us. Manny isn’t the mirror meant for Hank to see his own failings. Hank is our reflection. He’s the character meant for us to see our own griefs, our own humility, and those grand lessons we impose upon others but never tackle ourselves.

As Hank gets knocked out yet again, Manny uses the newfound strength he has to carry them both to Sarah’s home, which it turns out, they were just nearby this entire adventure. They’ve found what they thought was home, but when Sarah meets them both, the two of them clam up and refuse to say a word. Everything they’ve ever wanted to say to her fades away, and she ends up calling the police to handle them.

By the end of the film, when the police, the media, and the individuals they ran away from, discover Hank’s designs in the woods, their reaction is unclear. It’s a mix of something in between awe and disturbed, but one thing is abundantly clear: Hank crafted something that didn’t exist before. He left his lessons behind, and even if he can’t read what they say, others can.

But on that shore, when confronted by Sarah and his father, he has one moment of clarity. A singular moment of growth when faced with the thought of Manny’s miracles being forgotten like trash in the forest: he shares that fart with Manny. A gentle and personal fart, much to the disgust of everyone else. Just as before when Manny was taking the traits of Hank unto himself, Manny now takes that fart from Hank and he rides it off into the ocean. 

Seeing that final fart before the credits roll leaves me with one thought: that fart isn’t for Hank, it’s barely even for Manny. 

It’s a fart for me.

Maybe the island I find myself on isn’t so empty after all. Maybe it’s full of life and wonder and lessons that are just out of view. All I need to do is turn my head towards the road, and they’ll be standing right there, as blatant as a corpse on a shore.

Someday, I’ll ride that corpse off this island, in a cacophony of music and song, following the journey home.

One thing is for certain: wherever that home may end up being, I won’t be shy to share my farts.

Works Cited

Swiss Army Man. Directed by Daniels, 2016.

The Empire Strikes Back. Directed by Irvin Kershner, 1980.

Superman II. Directed by Richard Lester, 1980.Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Saban Entertainment, 1993.

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