Writer-director Benjamin Cleary’s “Swan Song” wastes little time posing deep, morally complex and compelling questions: If we could spare our loved ones from oppressive despair and heartache, would we make any sacrifice to do so? If we could clone ourselves without anyone knowing, would we? How do we identify to others and ourselves?
Part unconventionally-deconstructed love story, part high-concept sci-fi-tinged melancholic drama, the ultra-sleek, elegantly-realized tale is centered on one man’s journey toward answers and self-resolve in the face of death. The feature (which debuts at AFI Fest before its release in theaters and AppleTV Plus global premiere Dec. 17) strikes the right chord, rarely singing its tune off-key.
Graphic designer/artist Cameron Turner (Mahershala Ali) is wrestling with a big life decision. Terminally ill and with his condition rapidly worsening, he struggles with telling his loving, unwitting wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) about the fast-spreading disease taking over his brain and his plan to take on the future even if he’s no longer in his current corporeal form. He seeks an experimental treatment from Arra Labs, headed up by Dr. Jo Scott (Glenn Close) and psychologist/lead technician Dalton (Adam Beach), who clone their clients down to their molecular DNA and transfer their conscious and sub-conscious memories into a healthy duplicate. This revolutionary treatment comes with its own set of ethical challenges defying the laws of nature. But if the clientele is open, it’s a genuine gift to their loved ones, sparing them the agony and sorrow that comes along with death.
Though Cameron initially pursues the body-swap idea, he suffers a crisis of conscience, not knowing if deceiving his wife and his cute-as-a-button young son (Dax Rey) is the right way to preserve their family unit. Increasing the pressure are not only the ticking time bomb in his head, but also the fact that Poppy’s pregnant, making this the optimal time for a switch.
His reticence quickly fades after another seizure occurs, sending him on a week-long interlink “retreat” at the company’s remote, rain-drenched forest facility. Days are spent examining every minute facet of his memories, from his sweet meet-cute with Poppy on a train to their marital strife, both being affected by the death of her twin brother Andre (Nyasha Hatendi). He also befriends another ailing patient, Kate (Awkwafina), who lightly mentors him through the tough transition. As the memories of his love and discord with Poppy surface, they bring up latent emotions and doubts.
Cleary and editor Nathan Nugent establish a visceral energy, efficiency and economy of time through quick-cutting montages that speak to the deep throes of love and loss that have affected this couple’s journey. While replacing himself for his wife’s benefit may seem duplicitous on the protagonist’s part, the film makes it clear this spares her not only the burden of grief, but also the burden of keeping the clone a secret.
The narrative engages meaningfully with Cameron’s internal and external conflicts, as well as thematic ties to identity, personality and morality. The filmmakers lean into evolving emotional tones gracefully without being overly maudlin or saccharine. The “out of body” surrealist motif subtly threaded throughout the film’s fabric, from the sketches Cameron draws of a man floating in different spaces to his actual memory transference, is palpable and entrancing.
Still, there are a few slightly discordant pieces that could’ve used some smoothing. Since seizures are uncontrollable, it stretches credulity that no one close to Cameron has ever witnessed an episode. Though his resentment has a slow-burning build, Cameron’s paranoia of his clone Jack lasts all of one scene, essentially included to provide the impetus for the gut-wrenching goodbyes.
Spinning a winning, delicate love story would be almost impossible if not for the performances of the leads. Ali and Harris have impeccable chemistry, making us feel the profundity and stakes of their romantic relationship. Harris is dynamic, turning in work that’s filled with depth and dimension. Ali’s performance is full of pathos, nimbly negotiating the turns and nuanced facets of his dual role with skill, refinement and open-hearted vulnerability, where we see two clearly, cleverly defined portraits of one soul.
The combination of Masanobu Takayanagi’s natural, humanistic lighting and Annie Beauchamp’s superb, grounded production design makes the near future look like a familiar reality not too far off from our own. The aesthetics of the two worlds — the cozy Turner family home and the sparsely modern Arra institute — are vastly different in location and stylistic design, yet the same in their palpable feel of gentle serenity and safety. Their color palettes are somewhat synced, mirroring the connection forming between Cameron and his duplicate. Cynthia Ann Summers’ costume design also helps differentiate their soon-to-be splintering lives, cloaking Cameron in deep, rich hues and Jack in lighter color shadings. And Jay Wadley’s symphonic score reflects Cameron’s anguished, pensive psyche.
The way Cleary and the visual effects team incorporate futuristic technology such as enhanced communication devices and robotics (especially given that the film is distributed by Apple, an innovative leader in design) adds to the world-building aspects without distracting from the story. Understated, refined sound design also earns top marks. Ambient sounds of the soft pitter-patter of raindrops in the forest and the warm undercurrent of energy emitting from his happy home audibly augment Cameron’s contemplative journey — one that’s worth taking.