Swan Song – movie review

Confusingly, Swan Song is the second film with that title to be released in 2021. The other starred Mahershala Ali and you can stream it on Apple TV+. This Swan Song is a gentle tribute to a number of things – a man, a place, a time, a culture and an idea. Writer-director Todd Stephens crafts a meandering but oddly compelling story around his star, the brilliant German actor Udo Kier.

The film basically follows a aging man on a (possibly final) mission. This is similar to the idea behind David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999). Stephens – perhaps knowingly – includes a scene very reminiscent of one in Lynch’s film. But where The Straight Story was driven by a family relationship, Stephens casts a wider net. Change is a central theme – changes in society, changes in culture (particularly, in this case, gay culture) and changes in people. The film looks back on how previous generations have paved the way, while at the same time extolling some old-fashioned virtues, like pride in your work.

Pat Pitsenbarger (Kier) – known as Mr Pat – resides in an aged-care facility in sleepy Sandusky, Ohio. His joys are few, limited to sharing sneaky cigarettes with another resident. But one day a lawyer, Mr Shanrock (Tom Bloom) comes calling. He’s dealing with the will of recently-deceased Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans). The wealthy Rita – who was once Mr Pat’s best client when he ran a beauty salon in town – has left specific instructions that Mr Pat is to do her hair for the funeral. A substantial fee is on offer. But still chafing over an incident from the past, Mr Pat refuses. But when the facility management confiscate his cigarettes, it’s the last straw. He walks out and heads into town.

Along the way, Mr Pat encounters people from the past, who reveal he was once “stylist to the stars” – at least such stars as there were in Sandusky in the 1970s and ’80s. He opens up about a devastating loss, and about his bitter feud with Dee Dee Dale (Jennifer Coolidge), a former employee who set up a competing salon. Mr Pat observes the changes – some good, some bad, some just inevitable – time has wrought on this community. But will he change his mind and style Rita one last time?

If you’re a little over all-action blockbusters, Swan Song will be a welcome recharge. Stephens crafts a bucolic, almost melodic, pace to the film. Not a lot actually “happens” in a plot sense, but Stephens uses situations and dialogue to explore his larger themes. At times it’s pretty dark, but I found I myself happy to ramble with Mr Pat once I got into the rhythm of the film.

Although few would describe Sandusky as beautiful, cinematographer Jackson Warner Lewis lends the prosaic town a kind of warmth that illuminates the story. The fine score by Chris Stephens adds another layer to things.

Udo Kier (Melancholia) dominates the film as Mr Pat. He’s in virtually every scene, serving as audience surrogate as well as protagonist. He delivers a performance of incredible range and depth. Alongside him, the other actors get fewer opportunities. Jennifer Coolidge (Like a Boss) however stands out in a surprisingly understated performance as Dee Dee; while Tom Bloom (Limitless) and Michael Urie (Younger) shine in smaller roles.

Swan Song won’t be competing for number 1 at the box office, but this finely crafted and gently affecting indie film still has plenty going for it.

David Edwards

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