Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Swan Song (2021) dir. Todd Stephens

Opens in select theaters Friday, 8/6, and on VOD 8/13

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Udo Kier in SWAN SONG, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo by Chris Stephens. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

This past weekend I went to the Coolidge for my second round with David Lowery’s The Green Knight (verdict: still awesome). As the lights went down, the screen lit up with a trailer for the excellent new film Pig, which recently expanded into additional theaters following rapturous word of mouth. As the trailer unspooled, however, I noticed something slightly disturbing: you could barely hear much of the trailer over the audience’s uproarious laughter. I can, of course, understand why this would be: Cage is a naturally amusing presence given to over-the-top roles, and his repeated cries of “I’m just looking for my pig!” do, to the uninitiated, seem to signal a tongue-in-cheek revenge thriller. But those who have seen the film (or follow these pages) know that the film is something else entirely: a muted, often deeply sad film about love, loss, and stifled creativity. If that trailer gets more eyes on the film, I suppose it will have done its job, but one can’t help but imagine a lot of folks will approach it with entirely off-base expectations.

Swan Song, which opens theatrically today and digitally next week, in many ways feels like a companion piece and counterpoint to Pig. Like that film, its premise could easily be played for dark, absurdist comedy, and its star, like Cage, is far better known for outre genre work than intimate character studies. But also like Pig, this is in actuality as tenderhearted a film as you’re likely to come by, and I can’t recommend it enough.

Patrick “Mister Pat” Pitsenbarger (played with zeal by the great Udo Kier) was once a legend: a flamboyantly gay hairdresser who tended to the aristocratic elite of Sandusky, Ohio. Following a stroke and a series of personal tragedies, however, Mister Pat has spent the past couple of decades whittling away his days in a bleak, institutional nursing home. One day, Pat’s monotonous existence is interrupted by a lawyer, who informs him that one of his wealthy former clients (played in flashback and photographs by Dynasty’s Linda Evans) has passed away, and her will stipulates that Pat do her hair and makeup. Pat initially refuses (“I’m retired,” he coolly retorts, flicking the switch on his recliner), but his pride eventually wins out, and soon he escapes his confines, setting out on foot to rebuild his old self one piece at a time. However, as he returns to the town he once towered over, he finds himself unprepared for the reopening of old wounds.

When I first saw Swan Song at South by Southwest, I’ll admit that I was expecting something dark and devilishly campy, perhaps in the vein of late-period John Waters. I can tell you the exact moment I realized I was watching something different. Early in the film, Pat hitches a ride with a conservative-looking woman, a “Jesus is my co-pilot” air freshener dangling from her pickup truck mirror. Making small talk about his past, Pat mentions that his “friend,” David, passed away several years earlier. When the driver asks how he died, Pat matter-of-factly replies, “AIDS.” The woman says nothing, but clearly understands. Later, when she drops Pat off downtown, she takes another look at him, giving him a long, compassionate smile. It’s a quiet moment, but it makes two points: first, that Pat is a real person whose pain is being taken seriously, and second, that director Todd Stephens has no interest in inflicting additional cruelty upon him. Swan Song is often very funny– no film featuring Udo Kier voguing out of a thrift store dressing room in a turquoise pants suit could be accused of humorlessness– but Pat’s journey is a wistful one, and treated with respect.

Udo Kier in SWAN SONG (2021) dir. Todd Stephens

I’ve been a fan of Udo Kier since my days as a teenage horror punk, but I can honestly say that this is a performance I didn’t think he had in him. Kier is, of course, best known for applying his slithery, Teutonic charms to a variety of creepazoid roles, from the title characters in Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula and Flesh for Frankenstein to the unhinged soldier of fortune in Bacurau (my favorite film of last year). Mister Pat is something else: a character who towers over the small-minded midwesterners around him, but who is all too recognizably human. Like Cage, Kier is a remarkable performer who too frequently is cast simply to play the hits in thankless supporting roles for straight-to-video cheapies. Here, he is allowed to stretch his wings and become the movie star he was always meant to be. In many ways, I was reminded of Harry Dean Stanton’s send-off role in John Carroll Lynch’s Lucky, another rare late-career starring turn for a perennial “that guy.” But where Stanton at that point in his life felt a little like a ghost captured on film, Kier is never less than 100% present. Simply put, it’s a gift of a performance.

At its heart, Swan Song is a film about the passage of time. Emerging from his nursing home, Pat almost seems like a time traveler. The time he left behind, of course, was far less amenable to the LGBTQ community than the one he finds himself in– he and his partner had to hide behind euphemisms in mixed company– yet he can’t help but notice what’s been lost. When he returns to the drag bar at which he once performed, he learns that it’s been purchased by a young gay couple who plan on converting it into a straight-friendly microbrewery. “But where will we dance?” he asks, bewildered. Later, watching a pair of young dads playing catch with their children in the park, Pat muses, “I wouldn’t even know how to be gay anymore.”

In a more general sense, though, Swan Song is about faded creativity. Pat’s troubles began when his salon was driven out of business, his clientele swiped by an ambitious former protege (played with obvious relish by Jennifer Coolidge). It’s clear that he remains as sharp as ever, but, sequestered away with the hallways full of wheelchair-bound ladies and fruit cocktails in plastic cups, he has lost his motivation. When I spoke to director Todd Stephens, he confessed that he himself was working through some of the same creative anxieties following a twelve-year break from filmmaking. It’s a feeling to which any creative individual should be able to identify, regardless of their medium.

Mister Pat was clearly a giant in his own world: one astonished former customer declares, “Who could forget the Liberace of Sandusky?” (“Was I ever that butch?” Pat swans in response). However, that world for which he was too big no longer exists. Like Pig’s Chef Robin Feld, the Mister Pat we see at the beginning of the film is fully walled off, his small handful of relics– a sequinned top, some sentimental Polaroids, contraband packs of unfiltered slims– literally compartmentalized in a prim hatbox. But the more he finds his feet, the more he rediscovers his passions: for styling, for performance, and for life. In one joyous scene, Pat returns to the stage at his old haunt, and finds himself reconnecting effortlessly with his people.

Swan Song is clearly a labor of love, and it occasionally chafes against its low budget: not all of the bit players are working at quite the same level as the leads, and some emotional montages could do with a second coat of paint. But this is still a remarkably sweet, funny, and heartfelt film, and a career-best performance by one of our greatest character actors. My only fear is that, with its dead-of-summer VOD release and barely-there theatrical run, it will fail to find the audience it deserves. If this review convinces one person to seek it out, I’ll be satisfied.

Swan Song
2021
dir. Todd Stephens
105 min.

Opens theatrically Friday, 8/6 (though, sadly, nowhere in the Boston area). Available digitally Friday, 8/13

Read our interview with director Todd Stephens here!

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