Old age for Pat Pitsenberger (Udo Kier of Bacurau) is seemingly about little more than wasting away in a nursing home. It’s just as drab as you can imagine until the retired hairdresser (nicknamed the “Liberace of Sandusky”) gets a chance for one more do-up when he learns a former estranged client has died and needs to look her best before she’s put in the ground. To get to the funeral home, he takes a long walk through Sandusky, Ohio—but oh, how the city has changed.
Pat inhabits an overcast world, and his long sojourn is almost like a metaphor for the devolving Rust Belt itself. Half the locations he passes are shut down, boarded up, decaying or outright vanished, and director Todd Stephens’ desire to produce an ode to queer safe spaces that, like the region itself or the memories of old age, dissipate as time chugs along, catches the viewer off-guard.
Pat’s dual fascination with what’s lost alongside his internalized mourning present a career-high for 76-year-old Kier, a German native who jumps from relatively obscure cinema to embodying an Ohio hairdresser with a mountain of empathy. Swan Song often leans into pure camp, too, and never apologizes for its outlandish moments.
Like most festival circuit works, Stephens’ opus is not the cleanest film, nor is every directorial decision the most coherent. In fact, its low-budget vibe and supporting roles aren’t even close to convincing much of the time. There is a strong screenplay, however, anchored by a deep thematic core, and in moments wherein Swan Song’s melancholic scenes are well-balanced and tempered with rumination on life’s inevitabilities, a tear or two might fall. For all of its obvious limited production values, Swan Song does stand out within the indie world and holds its own as one of the most heartfelt films of 2021 thus far—its selection into festivals like SXSW are well deserved.
+ Udo Kier; strong screenplay
- Needs a little technical polish
Directed by Stephens
With Kier, Jennifer Coolidge and Michael Urie
VOD and Motorama at the Downs (Aug 21), NR, 101 min