One of the most surprising frontrunners for 2021’s Movie of the Year is the culinary revenge drama Pig, in which a world-weary Nicolas Cages emerges from retirement & isolation to smite his rivals with the fine art of fine dining. I personally related to Pig‘s kitchen culture critiques more than I expected to, especially as someone who put themselves through college by working back-of-house positions for most of the 2000s. But what about people with no kitchen experience? What if you’re a veteran of less macho service industries, like hair salons & drag clubs? Don’t you deserve your own revenge-mission drama that’s quietly bitter about the changing world?
Yes, Swan Song is essentially Pig for bitter old queens instead of bitter old chefs. Udo Kier stars as a gay-elder hairdresser in Sandusky, Ohio, who’s dragged out of retirement for one final mission (and to square off against his nemesis in glamor, Jennifer Coolidge). “Inspired by a true icon,” he’s known in his community as “The Liberace of Sandusky,” but he dresses & quips more like a small-town Quentin Crisp. Reassembling his gaudy costume rings & 70s leisure suits like knights’ armor, he embarks on a heroic journey to spruce the hair of his wealthiest client as she lays in her casket, carefully burning every bridge along the way between his old life & a new—to his eyes—less authentic world.
Unfortunately, this is a case where the character is much stronger than the movie that contains him. Swan Song constantly distracts from its own antique glamor with attempts at a distinctly modern, Sundancey style. Despite its shockingly expensive soundtrack, it’s shot with the same cheap, bland digi sheen that’s plagued most quirky character studies on Sundance’s docket in recent decades (although the film notably premiered at SXSW, despite appearing tailor-made for that fest). Its story structure is so by the numbers that you halfway expect Tim Meadows to interject, “Pat Pitesenbarger needs to think about his whole life before he dresses hair.” And the frustrating thing is that the character is solid enough of an anchor on his own that none of the movie’s failed attempts at style or poignancy are at all necessary. In an ideal world, this would get a Sordid Lives-style spinoff sitcom where Kier & Coolidge wage war in competing hair salons across the street from each other. I could watch them bitterly banter forever, even if everything around them tested my patience.
There is one major advantage Swan Song has over the other quirky character studies that continually ooze out of festivals like Sundance & SXSW: it has a distinct point of view. Udo Kier’s bitterness about the changing world can sometimes feel justified, as when he laments “I wouldn’t even know how to be gay anymore” in frustration over cruising’s migration from bars to apps. Sometimes, it feels pointlessly egotistical, as when he complains that younger generations should be “kissing his rings” for paving the road to their civil rights. It at least has something pointed to say about the way community elders are often left behind by youth-obsessed gay culture instead of being properly revered & cared for, whatever the occasional limitations of that perspective may be. It’s also amusing as a bitterly fabulous counterpoint to Pig, with truffles swapped out for vintage cans of Vivante hair gel.