If you knew your death was imminent, how far would you go to shield the ones you love from heartbreak? Would you sub in a perfect genetic copy of yourself, complete with memories, to seamlessly replace you and spare your family from the grief of your passing? Or would you selfishly savor every last moment you had?
What’s the ethical thing to do? What’s the most loving?
That’s the central question pulsing at the heart of Swan Song, a new film directed by Benjamin Cleary and fronted by two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali doing double duty playing a man diagnosed with a terminal illness as well as his cloned counterpart with motivations of its own.
Set in a slick and minimalist near future, Ali’s Cameron Turner is an artist and loving husband to Poppy, played by his Moonlight costar Naomi Harris. Turner suffers from ever-worsening seizures that threaten to end his life at any time, leaving Poppy, their son, and their unborn child fatherless. It’s a world where smartphones are all but embedded into human minds, and technology, while tethering humans together, also manifests as imparting a sobering distance.
Cameron is presented with an option by his doctor, played cerebrally by Glenn Close: he can swap in a cloned version of himself, embedded with his personality and all of his memories, and allow his family to live on in blissful ignorance as he awaits his fate alone.
It’s a fairly simple storyline that moves slowly, anchored by Ali’s complete acquiescence to his characters. And Ali delivers a captivating performance that brings to life the grief, anguish, and even jealousy Cameron must confront when deciding what’s best for his family.
The film’s plot is so thin that, if anchored by any other actor, it would surely be a flop.
But Ali brings nuance to his character, exploring the ways in which love is selfish and selfless and all the heartbreaking contours in between. At times, Swan Song toes the line of oversentimentality, spared only by the chilly sci-fi world-building that serves to cool down its emotional overtones.
Regardless, if you can surrender yourself to the story, it will jerk the tears.
For Cleary, who hails from Ireland and is best known for his Academy Award-winning short film Stutterer, it’s an impressive debut. My main critique is that Swan Song could have probably been about 30 minutes shorter. Then again, every moment Ali is on screen, which is nearly all of them, is a moment to savor.
Is this the deepest film ever made? Hardly. But it’s beautiful and thought-provoking and sad. Its central question will stick with you for days after viewing.
What would you sacrifice for love?
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