For years upon years, Udo Kier has been a fun and imposing presence on screen. If there’s a grindhouse style film coming out, there’s at least a 50/50 chance that Kier is going to be in it. When it comes to exploitation movie villains, he’s in a league all his own. So, casting him as a flamboyant hairdresser probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind for him, role-wise. However, in putting him in this role, he gets what may well be his most affecting part ever. A gentle and warm effort playing at SXSW this year, his work deserves to be widely seen.
Swan Song gives Kier a juicy real-life part to play, and boy does he ever launch himself into it. The movie itself is paper-thin and leans heavily on him, but he comes up aces, keeping things from ever falling apart. Whatever you think of him as an actor, be prepared to potentially have to alter that thinking.
Simply put, the film follows a former hairdresser named Pat Pitsenbarger as he takes a long walk across a small town. The purpose? To style a dead woman’s hair. Of course, there’s a bit more to it than just that. Reduced to life in a retirement home, Pat is a shell of his former self. One day, the attorney for his favorite client Rita Parker Sloan (Linda Evans) visits him, informing Pat of Rita’s passing. Despite a falling out over her not attending the funeral of Pat’s partner, David, Rita has asked that he style her hair. There’s a substantial payment in it for him, too. Needing the money, he accepts.
As Pat escapes and traverses the small Ohio town, he notices a lot of changes, both big and small. Interestingly, where he would once upon a time meet aggression or resistance to his homosexuality, acceptance awaits him now. Meeting new friends, as well as his old protégé, Dee Dee Dale (Jennifer Coolidge), Pat realizes that he has to decide if he’s going to forgive Rita at this final juncture.
Udo Kier goes above and beyond with this leading role. The supporting players are almost afterthoughts, but Kier is terrific. Watching his character both change and stay the same is oddly compelling. Given the chance to stretch his wings, Kier does not let the opportunity pass him by. Instead, he embraces it in a big way, with successful results, to say the least.
Filmmaker Todd Stephens rightly focuses in on Kier. Aside from him, there’s not much there, even though Stephens clearly cares deeply about the story. It mainly comes out in regards to the character of Pat Pitsenbarger, as opposed to the narrative on the whole. The more it focuses just on Kier and Pat being a hurricane of flamboyance, the better of things in the flick are.
Swan Song may well make you re-evaluate how you feel about Udo Kier. He’s just that good. The movie lives and dies with his work, so it easily lives. Whether it translates to anything beyond SXSW remains to be seen, but this is a great performance, plain and simple.