When you’re watching a film, there are always two versions; the one up on the screen and the one playing in your head, racing ahead, trying to put your own made up puzzle together. THE SONG OF SWAY LAKE gives you an amazingly rich amount of pieces to work with as the cast of broken characters try and put their own pieces together. It’s a rare joy in this day and age when you have the ability to view a film without any pretext. Often times you’ve had multiple trailers laying out that puzzle for you and you’re just filling in the middle section as the film goes by. I managed to view it as filmmaker Ari Gold (ADVENTURES OF POWER) truly intended and the depth of the characters along with the masterful minimalist score by his brother Ethan meant my inner projector was working overtime.
The film takes place primarily over the course of a few days back in 1992 while Ollie Sway, played by Rory Culkin (SCREAM 4, SIGNS) and his Russian friend, played by Robert Sheehan (BAD SAMARITAN, MUTE) visit Ollie’s grandparent’s lake house in order to steal a very rare vinyl recording from the 40’s.
It’s a straightforward drama in most regards but the film always has this haunted undercurrent of time flowing through the location and characters; whether feeling out of step with it, lost in it, or longing to be back in it. What the film is not, is a musical, although music does play a central character much like the lake itself. In today’s world, vinyl records are seen as this pure form of music championed by those that value purity over convenience but in this film, assisted with the time period, the vinyl records are what binds the generations together, both between Ollie and his father who passed away months previously and between the past and Mrs. Sway, Ollie’s grandmother, played wonderfully by Mary Beth Pell (THE GOOD WIFE, COLLATERAL BEAUTY).
In the film, everyone, and I do mean everyone, is dealing with something, but by the end of the film we get to see that inner turmoil manifest itself in fascinating ways. Even the titular song encased in an unopened vinyl recording from the 40s has baggage. The film succeeds not in showing you the weight of this baggage the characters lug around but in giving each character their own space to unpack and revel in the contents.
It’s an ensemble cast to be sure, but for me the most interesting role was Sheehan’s Nikolai, whose Russian bravado brought a necessary spark to the rest of the subdued characters. He willingly appears in his birthday suit on many occasions and walks as if he had just dismounted a bull he’d been riding for hours. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Marlena played with a muted angst by Elizabeth Peña (THE INCREDIBLES, LA BAMBA). This was Peña’s final film as she passed away after filming was complete and she demonstrates why she will be missed. As Mrs. Sway’s long time help, she conveys so much in the small amount of screen time she has and gives depth to a character that the plot doesn’t need but benefits from greatly.
The cinematography is great in capturing the majestic feel of this lake with such a rich past, given a glimpse of by the opening post-World War II reel. Ethan Gold does a tremendous job creating the traditional period song used in this opening and that titular piece used throughout the film but weaving in a minimal wet piano sound in the film. It never ceases to amaze me how much a score can establish and embellish the tone of a film. A mishandled score could have derailed this film into a coming of age romp but here the score reflects the nature of the lake’s affected inhabitants.
My first thoughts when the credits began to roll was that I’d been shortchanged. The next morning, the characters were still rolling around my head and as I thought more about it, I was simply disappointed that I was no longer allowed to follow these characters throughout their dysfunctional lives. This film is recommended for those that (not unlike those lovers of vinyl records) are open to the more subtle joys of cinema. It’s not about the destination, but about the journey...so do yourselves a favor and plot of course for The Song on Sway Lake.
"Babies Smell!" - Dr. Grant