Home » Film Festivals » ‘Swan Song’ review: Dir. Todd Stephens (2021) [SXSW]

‘Swan Song’ review: Dir. Todd Stephens (2021) [SXSW]

by Paul Heath

From writer and director Todd Stephens comes this remarkable and wonderfully staged story of Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Keir), an elderly former hairdresser and nursing home resident who embarks on one last adventure after being offered the opportunity to groom the hair of a late former customer in his old hometown.

Credit: Chris Stephens

From the opening frames of Swan Song, I knew that I was going to adore the film. It is Udo Keir as you have never seen him before in a career-best performance as Pitsenbarger (aka Mr. Pat), a larger than life character who spends his remaining days in his nursing home secretly smoking More cigarettes, stealing paper, and folding hundreds of them one by one before throwing them into his drawers in his bedroom. If the first scene didn’t grab me, it was when Keir, as Pat, first places himself in a wheelchair in the hallways of the nursing home that definitely assured me. Pat sits down and crosses his right leg across his left before wheeling himself off; quite unexpected and a clear promise of the glorious things which were to come.

Pat has received word that an old client, Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans), has sadly died and handed him a $25,000 provision in her will if he will return to his hometown of Sandusky, Ohio to do her hair and make-up in her open casket. It initially evident that there’s not too much love lost between him and his former customer, but off he goes to return home for one last adventure.

The film charts that journey and is a complete joy to watch from start to finish. You kind of know where things are going – the film’s title gives a massive hint on its own – but there’s so much that happens along the way it is so hard not to go with it.

Pat takes a journey down memory lane, hitting junctions that he may want to revisit; for example, a gravestone gracing his name alongside his partner who departed some decades previous, a particularly heartfelt and emotional moment that commands every ounce of Keir’s talent, and he nails it with aplomb. The rest of the film is a little more upbeat, the flamboyant character of Pat shining through as the film progresses, complete with cravats and bright suits, wonderful headwear, and dripping, dazzling costume jewellery.

While the screenplay is top-notch and the direction on point, there’s no doubt that this is very much Keir’s film and he plays the role of Pat with such devilish, delicious charm, but also with empathy and raw emotion. I cannot tell how good he is in this film and his performance is worth the entry alone. His turn is both raw, funny, but also deeply moving. Expect this to gain huge attention in a year’s time in terms of awards.

While the film could have painted a plodding journey of a man living out his final days, this is quite the opposite. A fabulous, vibrant celebration looking back at life, a dazzling sequin-filled, crystal chandelier-topped showstopper, and a sure-fire crowd-pleaser.

Swan Song was reviewed at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.

Swan Song


Paul Heath


A most fabulous, vibrant and sometimes deeply moving true story with an outstanding, career-best performance from Udo Keir.


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