Udo Kier has played all sorts of outrageous characters in a 50+ year career, which now seem to have been leading up to his German expatriate hairstylist in Swan Song – hopefully not yet the career swan song for the 77-year-old. Pat Pitsenbarger would stand out in whichever environment he found himself, and in the small city of Sandusky, Ohio, that’s especially the case. Sandusky does have a gay bar where you can catch the performances of the local drag talent, which once included Pat. As a symbol of how life has moved on, though, the bar is about to close down and become a microbrew pub.
Despite his own life symbolically winding down in a local nursing home, Pat might be in position to attend closing night. He’s sprung himself to reluctantly style the hair of a long-term client and friend who has beaten him to the grave, who ditched him for reasons that will become apparent over the course of the narrative.
If it seems as though Todd Stephens’ film – his latest in a career of films set in his hometown of Sandusky – is suffused with nostalgia and melancholy, that’s an astute observation. It’s a thematically rich version of those related feelings, showing us the sun having set on this particular character’s glory days, and setting on a whole iteration of the gay lifestyle. The fact that Donald Trump won Stephens’ home state of Ohio, not once but twice, might be gnawing away at the writer-director. The character whose will included a request for Pat to style her hair for the final time was a bigwig in the local Republican party, a factor that led to her split from Pat.
Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans) may be preceding Pat in death, but not by much, or so it would appear. Pat is miserable and sedentary in a local nursing home, his only joy being the More brand cigarettes he sneaks for himself and frequently has confiscated by the staff. Pat does want more, and we’re not just talking about the cigarettes. Rita’s dying request awakens in Pat thoughts of his former, fabulous life, which he frittered away through a prickly personality and plenty of burned bridges. He initially spurns the request – “Bury her with bad hair” he tells the executor of her will, with all the spite and eternal damnation he can muster – but it wouldn’t be a movie if that were the end of it.
After giving it some thought, Pat makes a break for the nearest exit, though one senses he’s not being strictly forbidden from leaving the home. If so, someone would surely come after him. Swan Song isn’t interested in whether Pat can evade the retirement home police and for how long. For Pat, this will be a journey through Sandusky settling scores and achieving some form of closure. In the process he will cross paths with friends, like fellow former drag queen Eunice (Ira Hakwins), and foes, like Dee Dee (Jennifer Coolidge), Pat’s one-time protégé who stole his best clients.
Although this is obviously Kier’s movie, and it becomes movingly so over the course of the narrative, at first it’s a bit of an odd fit for the actor. In a career largely comprised of weirdos and deviants, Kier has rarely been asked to deliver a leading man’s pathos. His eccentric style – which you can also describe as his “extreme Germanness” – has always made him a great candidate for those weirdo and deviant roles. He’s got a staccato delivery that goes beyond the fact that English is his second language, and those large eyes have been used more regularly to discomfit than to translate earnest human feeling.
Kier gets there in the end, and the performance ends up becoming a bit of a sneak attack. Because Kier hasn’t been laying the sentimentality on thick from the start, more eager to act churlishly and dismissively, the eventual softening of that demeanour carries with it huge rewards. The details we get about his relationship with the deceased also add dimension.
In a way, Pat’s life has felt over to him a lot longer than the time he’s spent in the nursing home. His partner passed from AIDS way back in the 1990s, a cut that still feels fresh. It’s possible he’s just been going through the motions since then, his inability to keep up the façade steadily leading to a total loss of his support structure. His sojourn through Sandusky, then, feels like Pat slowly returning to what made him him. The journey is marked by his steady assembly of the individual components of a fabulous outfit he might have worn 25 years earlier, despite having only enough money for his latest pack of cigarettes.
The film builds from a collection of eccentric demonstrations of Pat’s character to a joyous celebration of his life and the scene of which he was once a part. It gathers emotional resonance as it proceeds, and has a few ecstatic highlights, such as the closing night at the drag bar, which Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” propels into the stratosphere.
Swan Song has its ostentatious moments, but at its core is a nuanced affair that understands the complexities and imperfections of life. Its themes seep in from the sides until they embrace the film like a warm feather boa. Instead of seeming like a strange messenger for those themes, Kier becomes, by the end, the only one you could ever imagine embodying Pat Pitsenbarger and the glorious contradictions that make him human.
Swan Song is currently playing in cinemas.