When you really think about it, and that act right there already is a bit of the hard part for many, there may be no more universally shared feeling of the human condition than existential dread. No matter the spiritual or secular backgrounds possible, everyone pushes against those moments of reflection and crisis. The best movies that have addressed existential anxiety are some of the most challenging viewing experiences that stick with audiences long after their credits roll. Go ahead and add Benjamin Cleary’s Swan Song to that venerated list.
Furthermore, by channeling its abundantly unique story down a futuristic path, Swan Song also embraces the realm of potential science fiction. Moored by an immensely complex performance from two-time Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali, the crux of Cleary’s debut feature film oscillates on a virtuous decision amplified by the reach of technology not yet viable today. The drama may be all-inclusive with its existential dread, but the choices and implications considered and then enacted are strenuous yet sublime.
In the not-too-distant future, Ali plays Cameron, an artistically-driven product designer and married father of one son named Cory. His love story with his musician wife Poppy (the luminous Naomie Harris) began with a Meet Cute over a mistaken chocolate bar on a commuter train. Even through the shortcomings of their mutual work-life balance issues, their family’s future looks promising with Poppy expecting their second child. That sunny future for Cameron is derailed when seizures he begins to experience foretell a terminal diagnosis giving him mere months to live. He will not survive long enough to see the birth of his new child and cannot bring himself to tell Poppy. However, one experimental medical option presents an unnerving measure of hope.
Pioneered by Dr. Jo Scott (8-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close) and her assisting psychologist Dalton (Adam Beach of Windtalkers), Arra Labs has developed a cloning program that copies your memories and behaviors into an exact physical copy. That healthy doppelganger can then be inserted into your life to take your place while you live out your remaining days at Arra Labs’ mountain retreat. The goal is to extend your perceived life and spare your family immediate grief.
With a baby on the way, that last part is the goal of Cameron, and he becomes more convinced by observing and bonding with another Arra Labs client named Kate (Awkwafina, star of the thematically similar The Farewell) who has completed this same clone exchange. The lab’s thorough counseling program of memory transfers and cross-checks has Cameron replaying the highs and lows of his life side-by-side with his clone, all while orchestrating an enormous secret.
Cameron is considering an action that will secure his family’s future. Yet, perhaps the hardest part of Cameron’s journey is the prospect of saying a goodbye that no one will know is an actual goodbye. Even if his days are numbered, he has to live with the notion of someone else living what should be his life. Such reflections jar his indomitable male will as a husband and father.
This laborious proposition of Swan Song guarantees to split audiences with an ethical wrestling match between honesty and empathy on whether they could do what Cameron has chosen. One has to wonder how many shielding spouses and parents would consider this radical course of action if it were available and find pity and solidarity in that grave choice. Yet, it’s the lie of it all that will be a certain hang-up for others, and understandably so. While this whole undertaking is a personal choice for Cameron to make, it is also a decision he may be unfairly denying from his wife and children, unbeknownst to them. What would you tell yourself to get through this and at what point do you realize that it’s not only about you?
Because of the crushing emotions and controversial implications in play in Swan Song, an extremely delicate lead and dualistic performance was required from Mahershala Ali, and the soon-to-be 48-year-old conquered every possible struggle. Wherever volatile selfishness or anger threatened to push this film into over-sentimental territory, Ali seized grace armored by sorrow the likes of which is rarely accomplished. Through the painful reflections and prognostications his character goes through, Ali makes the eventual justifications for Cameron’s unfathomable choices convincing. That is an extremely difficult and connective place to succeed.
In dipping its toes into science fiction, the production values of Swan Song match that sturdy dramatic beauty. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Hostiles) absorbs the posh production designs of Annie Beauchamp (The Yellow Birds) to create a stark setting of contrast and cleanness trying to contain the messy human temperaments. Composer Jay Wadley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) and music supervisor Meghan Currier amplify that morose mood further with a divine and haunting combination of score and songs.
Playing on AppleTV+, Swan Song is the feature debut of writer-director Benjamin Cleary, an Oscar winner for the live action short film Stutterer in 2015. The burgeoning visionary deserves tremendous recognition for constructing and charting a compelling path through this moral minefield of a narrative. A different director would wrongfully inject spectacle for spectacle’s sake or construe some external villainy. Cleary avoids those mistakes with an Andrew Niccol-like vibe of thoughtful design and intelligent patience. He knows the true nucleus of this story lies between the ears and between the ribs. Clench your own heart and mind tightly in welcoming one of the best films of 2022.