Udo Kier gets a lovely late-career showcase, and Leah Purcell directs a brustling but unfocused feminist Western.
(This dispatch is part of our coverage of the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.)
Much like time in a Tracy Lawrence song, the 2021 South by Southwest film festival marches on. However, while SXSW will continue on until March 20, the Narrative Spotlight section has reached its final day with two entries. The vast differences between this pair of features reinforces the level of variety found in this festival. The first of these closing Narrative Spotlight projects is a wistful yet joyous endeavor starring the one and only Udo Kier.
For Pat Pitsenbarger, life has come to a close. The former beautician is now in a Sandusky, Ohio nursing home, content to live out his days not saying a word and sneaking cigarette breaks when he can. When he learns that a former friend has passed away, he gets the chance to give her a makeover before her funeral. His initial rejection gives way to him making a break from his nursing home and sneaking into town. There, Pitsenbarger will find a largely unfamiliar world that even a confident man like himself has trouble navigating.
Swan Song, directed by Todd Stephens and based on the real-life Pitsenbarger, isn’t a dense work, but it is a highly satisfying one. Its low-key charms get a lot of mileage out of the sight of an elderly Udo Kier coming to terms with a world that’s moved on without him. His favorite shops are gone while gays can now hang out at the local Applebee’s rather than in tiny holes-in-the-wall. Sometimes, this is used for sweet moments of people just being nice to each other, like an early scene of Pitsenbarger bonding with newer residents of his old beauty salon.
Other times, the presence of a whole new world is used to reflect more existential material related to Pitsenbarger’s loneliness. He may put on a detached exterior, but glimpses into this man’s mind make it clear that he’s wistful for his deceased loved ones, including his late husband. Those poignant touches are handled gracefully by Kier, who’s long had the gift for conveying intense emotions in subdued but no less powerful terms.
The weighty and frivolous scenes of Swan Song are in a constant dance together that brings out the best in each tonal quality. Understanding Pitsenbarger’s loneliness to such a degree makes a late scene of that character having the time of his life in a gay bar even more touching. “I missed this!” Pitsenbarger yells over the music. “Being with [my] people!” Swan Song may not be a dense film, but with charming scenes of poignancy like that, it works its magic on you all the same.
Based on a book of the same name by Leah Purcell, The Drover’s Wife is a Western tale that subverts who normally gets to headline tales set in this genre. Purcell plays the titular role, a woman by the name of Molly Johnson. She’s just trying to take care of her kids while her husband is away. However, the presence of a runaway fugitive named Yadaka (Rob Collins), as well as revelations about her ancestry and her kids being taken away, will change Johnson’s life forever. The wife is supposed to be the passive figure in a Western. Johnson is about to be anything but.
The Drover’s Wife is a conceptually interesting yarn, a story about people who don’t get to usually control their narrative. It’s also noteworthy for being one of the tragically few films about Australia’s indigenous population from an indigenous filmmaker. Unfortunately, the execution of those commendable qualities isn’t bad but does fail to emotionally involve the viewer. The tone and production design of this film are just too familiar. The Drover’s Wife features familiar beats of deconstructionist Westerns but few characters to grab the soul.
An additional problem is a lack of focus in Purcell’s screenplay. A large portion of the story focuses on British soldier Sergeant Klintoff (Sam Reid), whose exploits in navigating his new job in Australia just aren’t that interesting. The fact that his character proves to be superfluous to the overall story by the end only makes the extended scenes linger on his point-of-view all the more puzzling. Time we spend with Klintoff could be better spent building up the friendship between Johnson and Yadaka.
The most harrowing scenes of Drover’s Wife do see Purcell at her best as a filmmaker while her quiet intensity in the lead role, nicely maintained even in Johnson’s most vulnerable moments, is impressive. But neither her best directorial flourishes nor her performance can lend enough distinctiveness to Drover’s Wife to fulfill its subversive ambitions.