The only thing better than one Mahershala Ali is two. As if making up for the last several years, on behalf of Hollywood, when Ali has only been given supporting roles, Swan Song changes things up. Ali is given the opportunity to act in both a supporting role AND a leading role. How generous.
Written and Directed by Benjamin Cleary, Swan Song is AppleTV+’s newest attempt at begging consumers to take their streaming service seriously. I don’t mean that as a slight to the service. In fact, they have some solid movies on there that have fallen by the wayside to the dreck shelled out by other streaming services throughout the year. Boys State, Wolfwalkers, and Beastie Boys Story were among my favorites of last year. Swan Song acts as another better-than-expected film from the service. One that I hope does not get lost in the very full end-of-the-year movie release calendar.
Set in the near future, Cameron (Ali) has recently found out of his terminally-ill diagnosis. After learning this, however, he leaves his wife, Poppy (Naomie Harris), and kid, Cory (Dax Rey), in the dark. He is informed of a solution that may take away the pain that his inevitable death would cause for those most important to him. He visits with Dr. Jo Scott (Glenn Close) to seek answers about this option.
An Impossible Decision
Cameron learns that through new technology, he can be duplicated. This duplicate will know everything that he knows, will have the same feelings and memories as Cameron, and, once activated, will not even know that it is a duplicate. This second Cameron would be so convincing that even Poppy and Cory would have a hard time knowing that it was not actually their loved one.
This, of course, raises a massive ethical dilemma for both Cameron and the audience to ponder: Should he do it?
Swan Song is a slow, meditative film whose success hinges on this question. More importantly, how much the audience buys into the moral conundrum. The filmmakers use this to their advantage. Just as soon as it might seem like a clear cut answer for most viewers, a new wrinkle is given. As we are allowed more information about Cameron and his family’s lives, we begin to question our original inclination. Maybe Cameron’s other option is the right one? It’s this uncertainty that keeps Swan Song interesting, even while its actual plot remains simple.
It should not be a surprise to anyone who has ever seen Mahershala Ali act before to hear that he turns in another fantastic performance. Ali showcases a range of emotions that helps us feel invested in his character and their ultimate decision. It is an unfathomable choice to have to make. Ali grounds the character in a way that helps us understand why he would want to go either way with the decision. Additionally, we understand and can empathize with his struggle to commit either way. The context that he is making the decision within is one that is not cut and dry. Ali manages to keep us wondering what he will decide up until the end of the movie.
Reuniting with her Moonlight co-star, Naomie Harris is also turning in a solid performance. As Poppy, Harris does not have a lot of screentime in the present timeline. However, as parts of their lives unfold, we get to see flashbacks of pivotal events that help inform Cameron’s decision. It is in these moments where Harris gets to bring some dimension to Poppy. She becomes her own character, rather than just a being that Cameron has to consider in his decision-making. We see how and why she became the person that she is and are asked to consider the implications of that as we ponder Cameron’s choice to make. The choice – already difficult – is made even more complicated through Harris and her fully realized portrayal of Poppy.
A strong sign of success for a film is how it lasts with me. There are some movies that I watch, rave about immediately after, and am left struggling to remember anything about them a few days later. As I have given time for Swan Song to rest in my mind, it has remained a force. I have thought about the conclusion and how I grapple with it, I have thought about the strong performances, and the touching moments that really snuck up on me.
While the movie is not always super energetic or dynamic, it keeps the mind stimulated. Whether through emotion or through sheer questioning what we would do in a similar situation. If Swan Song will hold up on repeat viewings remains to be seen. I can say that my initial viewing of the movie brought about one of the great powers of film. Swan Song left me thinking about far more than what I saw on screen long after the credits rolled.