Mahershala Ali has been a working actor for 20 years, but it seems like his role as Remy on Netflix’s House of Cards is what brought him his breakthrough moment. Since then, he has gone on to win two Oscars (for Moonlight and Green Book) in the span of two years and has cemented himself as one of our finest actors working today. His credentials are clear and his talent is always evident on the screen, so it’s a surprise to most he has never been a leading man, given his recent acclaim. Benjamin Cleary‘s feature debut Swan Song has given Ali the chance to ascend to that status.
Cleary (who won an Oscar for the short film Stutterer) makes his feature film debut with Swan Song, a quiet film of big ideas. Set in the future, where cars are self-operated, Cameron (Ali) learns he is terminally ill, but hasn’t told his wife Poppy (Ali’s Moonlight co-star Naomie Harris) the devastating news. He isn’t ready to confront his reality yet and has been consulting Dr. Jo Scott (Glenn Close) about something she has been spearheading.
Dr. Scott has presented Cameron with an opportunity to clone himself and his wife would never know the difference. This would give Cameron the chance to continue living (in the form of a clone, also played by Ali) and spare his wife and child the heartache of losing their husband and father. Cameron rejects the idea, but Dr. Scott is nothing if not persistent. She continues to call him and suggest he takes this opportunity, which she has provided for two other people (one played by Awkwafina, who continues to try and show her dramatic range – just see The Farewell instead). Cameron finally decides to meet Dr. Scott at her remote complex, having to make up a work excuse for the reason for his travels.
There’s a morality layer at play in Swan Song, which the movie could have leaned farther into and it may have been more interesting. Cameron certainly has his hesitancy about the project and who could blame him. How appealing is it to be offered a chance to continue living, when it’s not really you? If the movie had dug even deeper, more could have been done with Close’s character: Is she a mad scientist villain or someone providing a service to save a family from a lifetime of grief?
The questions Swan Song proposes often feel half-answered because Cleary is more interested in the film’s visual depiction of the story. A lot of time is spent showing Cameron’s memories from meeting Poppy and building a life together. It’s poignant but ultimately repetitive in how Cleary handles these moments.
Swan Song is a somber film and occasionally a reflective one, but at just shy of two hours, it feels like a movie of ideas and never fully-realized. Thankfully, Cleary has such emotionally rich actors like Ali, Harris and Close to make sections of the movie compelling, but Swan Song never really felt like more than just a concept.