An early contender for one of 2021’s best films, Swan Song offers an incredible journey of self-discovery and a career-best performance from Udo Kier.
We all fear where our lives will lead. You can plan for tomorrow, do everything right, and the best possible outcome is that you will die peacefully surrounded by the ones you love. Life is a losing game, but Todd Stephen’s Swan Song reminds us to make the most of whatever time we have left.
Udo Kier stars as Pat Pitsenbarger, otherwise known as Mr. Pat, a once iconic hairdresser who resides in a dull retirement home in Sandusky, Ohio. He spends his time meticulously folding napkins, seeing ghosts of dead friends, and making subtle gestures to improve the lives of those around him. Whatever light once filled his life is gone, but his behavior tells us that his soul is screaming for something, anything, to happen.
Pat’s chance for one last adventure comes with the news a former client, Rita (Linda Evans), has died. Her final wish was for Pat to style her hair one last time, and though he initially resists, the opportunity to do what he does best is too hard to ignore. Pat then sets off on a slow through the city of Sandusky, Ohio, to gather his materials, reflect on his life, and fulfill Rita’s last request.
Filmmaker Todd Stephens is perhaps best known for his comedic work, such as the now-iconic Another Gay Movie, but Swan Song is a different kind of story altogether. While moments of humor appear throughout, there is an immense sense of sadness that hangs over the narrative. Pat is not long for this world, and nearly every semblance of the life he once led is either gone or changed in such a way that he hardly recognizes it. For someone that always felt like a bit of an outsider, Pat now feels more detached than ever, and that feeling of loss is something he and we wrestle with throughout the film.
Kier has spent more than fifty years in front of the camera. While he’s worked in every genre with filmmakers of all sizes, one could argue that a lifetime of work led him to — and prepared him for — this role. His masterful understanding of human emotion lends itself to a story such as this, where every action, big and small, tells us something about his character. Pat’s journey is his first outing since his partner’s death, so he’s lost the only person that made him feel comfortable being himself. Kier’s approach to slowly reveal the whimsical, utterly original human within the shell we meet at the film’s start is a defining moment in a career littered with unforgettable performances.
There is a rough and tumble quality to the production side of Swan Song that doesn’t always play in its favor. Stephens’ filmography still possesses a distinctly indie look, as though he’s stretching each cent as far as it will allow, and this movie is no exception. The apparent lack of cinematic polish dulls certain moments, such as one scene involving a back and forth with a distracted young bartender that feels weirdly stiff, but it never derails the film.
Swan Song is a story we’ve heard many times before, and it more or less leads precisely where you think it will, but Udo Kier’s performance is so incredible that you must see it. This is a story of redemption and self-(re)discovery that leverages a dull Midwest backdrop to spotlight a great spirit’s final bow. Stephens has given us a perfect reminder that we are more than often believe ourselves to be and that the world is always more interesting when we live our truth with reckless abandon. Be kind, do you, and don’t worry about the rest.