Swan Song, 2021.
Written and directed by Todd Stephens.
Starring Udo Kier, Jennifer Coolidge, Linda Evans, Michael Urie, Ira Hawkins, and Stephanie McVay.
An aging hairdresser escapes his nursing home and embarks on an odyssey across his small town to style a dead woman’s hair for her funeral, rediscovering his sparkle along the way.
Whether you know his name or not, you’ll likely recognise the face of German character actor Udo Kier, who counts over 250 film and TV credits to his name and has worked with innumerable auteurs – to name just a few, Lars von Trier, Gus van Sant, Werner Herzog, Dario Argento, Alexander Payne, and S. Craig Zahler.
Card-carrying leading man roles have been in scant supply for Kier over the decades despite his immense screen presence, but his new drama Swan Song represents a rare opportunity for the actor to command the screen for all of its 105 minutes. To report that he rises to the occasion is to rather understate the case.
Kier plays Pat Pitsenbarger, a 70-something retired hairdresser once known as the “Liberace of Sandusky,” and who is now confined to a far-flung nursing home following a stroke. Though once upon a time Pat was celebrated as a superstar hairdresser in the aforementioned Ohio town, a succession of tragedies ended up costing him his business.
But Pat soon learns that his fancy former client, Rita Parker Sloan (Dynasty icon Linda Evans), has passed away and insisted in her will that Pat be the one to style her hair for the funeral, even leaving him $25,000 as payment. And with that, Pat promptly escapes confinement to begin the long trip back to his hometown, which has changed considerably since he last stopped by.
If the outrageous premise might suggest a ridiculous, emotionally flippant caper comedy, Swan Song is actually a film of impressive depth and lingering heft, based loosely on the experiences of writer-director Todd Stephens (Gypsy 83, Another Gay Movie) who knew the real Pitsenbarger as a young man living in Sandusky.
If it’s easy to imagine an altogether different version of this film – an old codger comedy starring Morgan Freeman or Michael Caine, perhaps – Stephens gives us something far more raw, and one undeniably defined by the unexpected, adventurous casting of Kier himself.
His Pat may be a relic of a world that’s fast moving on without him, but he’s still got something left in the tank, even if his daily excitement at the nursing home amounts merely to hiding his smoking habit from the nurses. “That’s all I have,” he says of a carton of cigs when caught by a nurse – a statement loaded with heartbreaking double meaning.
What follows is the most low-key, uneventful escape in the history of “prison” breaks, before Pat begins his gradual reassembly of a fabulous identity he’d clearly left behind years prior – presumably with either the AIDS death of his partner David or the subsequent destruction of his business.
Early on Pat acquires a sequined pink sunhat from what used to be a hairstyling supplies store – and is now a hair salon run by Black women – and later receives a pastel green suit complete with a purple hat. Compared to the grey, no-effort sweatpants he wears at the start of the journey, it’s transformatively camp, rooted in Pat’s own past as a flamboyant gay man who loved to perform at the local drag bar.
The passage of time is brutal and unforgiving throughout Stephens’ film, exemplified in one brilliantly haunting scene as the aforementioned drag bar is due to be closed and converted into a craft beer micro-pub the very next day. This isn’t to say that Stephens is blind to progress, though; safe spaces like the bar perhaps have less currency in our more accepting present.
Still, the existential angst is unmistakable; Pat, who has no children, laments his own lack of a legacy and in one scene even stares at his own pre-purchased burial plot next to David. But even as Pat gets closer to the end of his life and his looks fade, the spirit undeniably endures. That said, Kier admittedly still cuts a spry, statuesque figure at 76 years of age, and his famously piercing gaze has lost none of its allure.
These characteristics have more often seen the actor flourish as the menacing supporting villain in dozens upon dozens of productions both in Hollywood and abroad, so it’s enormously refreshing to see him playing a more imminently likeable character and doing so as a lead. At once dryly hilarious and suffused with the melancholy his strained, weathered countenance implies, it’s surely the most soulful role of Kier’s entire career.
He’s joined in the supporting stakes by Jennifer Coolidge, cast in a slyly against-type role as Pat’s former assistant-turned-hairdressing rival who ended up putting him out of business. If Coolidge is better known for her more mug-happy work in broad comedies, here she gives a disarmingly understated performance as an antagonistic figure in Pat’s life. Linda Evans is also effective in a tiny but punchy role as Rita, and Michael Urie bridges the generational gap as her grandson Dustin, a figure central to Pat’s own cathartic payoff at film’s end.
The tonal assurance throughout this project is remarkable, darting between wistful heartbreak and bone-dry humour at a moment’s notice, typically before slaloming into one of several well-placed needle-drops – most memorably, Pat dancing to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” at the drag bar with a chandelier atop his head. For an actor whose recent work involves telling Vince Vaughn what horrors he’d inflict upon his unborn baby in Brawl in Cell Block 99, it is a brilliantly jarring about-turn.
But neither these poppy interludes nor the flecks of absurdity are ever at the expense of the sweeping current of emotional plausibility, which beyond passing poignant comment on the unstoppable march of time and everything it devours – literally, everything – concedes how something as simple as a haircut can make someone’s life, or as the case might be, death.
Swan Song affords legendary character actor Udo Kier a long overdue showcase, the result of which is both spectacularly fun and deeply moving.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.