Thesis: Can Hank live without shame?
Inciting Incident: Hank realizes that Manny isn't just a corpse.
Hank discovering than Manny isn’t just a corpse incites the journey. The hook presents us with a mystery – did I experience something supernatural? Hank plays along for a while. Drags Manny on his back for a bit, but at some point, he just decides the mystery isn’t worth minding much. Right until Manny speaks. Then we have a story.
Threshold: Hank leaves the cave with Manny.
I have to lay out uncertainty. Things get hazy here. We have half an act where Hank is trying to show it all to Manny, what life’s about. Why he’s alone, and why he wants to get back home. It might even be Hank trying to convince himself that life is worth fighting for, considering that our first intro to the character has him at the bottom of a noose. I’m setting my act break here, where Hank and Manny leave the cave.
Midpoint: Hank doesn't kiss Manny.
It’s not about fire. It’s not about direction. It’s about love. People may argue that a true midpoint is more concrete. Maybe it’s when Manny remembers Sarah Johnson in which he discovers love, and direction. Some would say it’s the discovery of fire, which is dominion of the wilderness but doesn’t solve Hank’s true insecurities.
It has to be when Hank finds comfort in dressing as Sarah Johnson. When Manny enchants Hank with a speech about love, about the carousel of beauty that life has to offer.
It has to be where Hank doesn’t kiss Manny. My belief is that not only is the midpoint a false victory, it’s something the character suffers for at the blind eye he gives to his inner demons. And here we have both the joy and the suffering.
Low Point: Shame keeps Hank from speaking to Sarah Johnson. Manny dies.
Manny, who has managed to avoid the shame of his body, finds himself disgusting through the way Sarah Johnson sees him. He dies, with his final words being, “Don’t let her know how much I loved her.” This is the worst thing that could happen to Hank, but I’d argue it happens in response to Hank being unable to speak to Sarah when he needs help. Out of shame. The low point is Hank succumbing to his shame.
Climax: Hank farts in front of his loved ones.
You’ve been seeing the word ‘shame,’ pop up a lot because Swiss Army Man is largely about it. The end of the second act has Manny dive into his fears about his best friend is hiding his farts from him. Because if Hank is ashamed about himself, how could he view Manny with anything but disgust? On a standoff at the beach we have, Sarah Johnson – the love of Hank’s life, Hank’s Father – who is deeply ashamed of his son, and the police – ready to send him to an asylum.
At the very second Hank needs to appear like a ‘normal,’ person, he farts in front of them to show that he’s unashamed, to prove to himself and Manny that they are living, loving things.
Resolution: Manny returns.
Manny comes back to life because Hank has finally accepted himself. All of himself. The shit, the vomit, the predestined decay.
Like all films that score two protagonists, Swiss Army Man makes it difficult at times to find where the act breaks. Who to blame it on. Of course, it’s always someone’s story. We could say that Manny is just Frank’s alter-ego. That he’s only a shadow detailed by Hank’s insecurities. But what I love about Swiss Army Man is that unlike other films with the alter-ego, Manny has autonomy. He isn’t a figment of imagination. Everyone sees him. And by the end of the film there’s an ocean separation between he and Hank. There’s no merging.
Where this had most of an effect for me, is the midpoint. It couldn’t be as harsh as the discovery of fire. Mortal prowess. Something about dominion. It couldn’t even be about Manny remembering Sarah Johnson, which gets them out of the literal pit they find themselves in. It had to involve love – which is what the film is truly about, and it had to be a real false victory. Hank in Sarah’s clothes finds himself at peace with some kind of self-presence, but is still unable to kiss someone he’s fallen in love with.