Directed and co-written by Ari Gold
Starring Rory Culkin, Robert Sheehan and Isabelle McNally
Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA rating: R for language, graphic nudity and some sexual content
by Deborah Krieger
“Dearest Charlotte, you begged me to freeze time. I’ll do anything, even that.” Mingling in the waters of a mist-glazed lake, Charlotte (Mary Beth Peil) and Hal (Brian Dennehy), an army man away at war, exchange epistolary love notes, essentially spelling out the message and themes of the movie about a minute or so into an ninety-minute movie. As we immediately learn from a well-executed faux-1940s newsreel, Charlotte (Charlie) and Hal are members of the Sway family, whose private lake retreat has all the glamour and prestige of a West Egg hot spot. Their son swims in the beautiful waters of the lake as a newscaster-style voice croons, “So, Timmy, are you going to be a hero like your father?” We then immediately cut to Sway Lake in February, 1992, as frozen and bleak as a tundra, where the adult Timmy Sway promptly drowns himself in that unforgiving abyss. A needle settles into the grooves of an LP; the lights of the lake house are on, but no one is coming home.
Despite a coldly depressing opening, The Song of Sway Lake is a movie that, aesthetically, is perfect for the end of the summer. It looks like how the end of summer feels—warm, a little overripe, a breath before the first few leaves fall. The light is perpetually golden, the time of day seemingly perpetually late afternoon, with some of cinematographer Eric Lin’s more impressive shots resembling the vibrancy of the lake scene in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. (The Song of Sway Lake was actually filmed in 2014.) We hear Charlie’s voice once again as she composes letters to “Dear Hal,” which comprise exposition for the first few minutes of The Song of Sway Lake, telling us pretty much everything we need to know about the plot of the movie. Timmy’s son Ollie Sway (a sullen, passive Rory Culkin) and his (apparently) only friend Nikolai (Robert Sheehan) are driving to Sway Lake to, as Charlie puts it, steal a record of the original song written about Sway Lake, recorded on Charlie and Hal’s wedding night and left untouched ever since then.
Ollie, a music aficionado like his late father, wants to keep the record untouched; he’s the kind of character who, when Nikolai expresses an interest in hearing it, proclaims that opening it will lessen its value, more interested in the appearance and trappings of the heirloom than the heirloom itself. “Both believe the modern world is vulgar,” Charlie continues in voice-over, after telling (rather than letting the film show) the important qualities of the protagonists of the film. Soon enough, Charlie arrives unceremoniously with her mistreated housekeeper Marlena (the late Elizabeth Peña) to cut short Ollie and Nikolai’s uninvited sojourn to the paradise of sparkling waters and dusty boxes of LPs. She wants the record, too, and is the kind of character who leaves notes on the beds telling people not to put their dirty bags on said bed—that is, exactly like Ollie in their pursuit of perfection, though naturally they don’t see eye to eye. Timmy, too, was exacting to a fault, numerically rating all of the records in his collection, and passed that trait onto Ollie. Nikolai, the most energetic (if also intensely irritating) character in the film, is Russian by way of Boris and Natasha. (The Americans, this is not.) Naturally, he’s the one to tell both Charlie and Ollie that “Americans would rather organize music than hear it.” Conversely, Marlena’s personality is skillfully established in her quiet reactions to Charlie’s casual cruelty, and in the brief moment we get of her killing a fly with her bare hands, standing over a kitchen sink already littered with dead flies, her face stony.
The most moving scene in the film takes place when, stumbling in the darkened lake house during a blackout, Ollie discovers his father’s hidden cache of records—all worn and scratched with use—and childhood catalogue of his record collection, with not a rating in sight. Timmy hid the Sway Lake record there, too, as it turns out, perhaps thinking that neither his perfectionist mother nor son would think to find them there, and after Ollie finds it, there’s naturally a bit of hullabaloo of who’s going to end up with it. Despite the beauty of the imagery, The Song of Sway Lake is a film that conflates that artsy, impressionistic cinematography with profoundly deep and emotional storytelling, as if one can turn the correlation into a kind of causation. Based on how The Song of Sway Lake is paced, how oddly and draggingly it unfurls, it seems like it would have worked better as a short film. The characters move about the lake house and on the water, full of ennui, the crackle of a record and some solemn piano plinks doing the work of establishing an emotional tone. Cutting away the stretches of scenes where Ollie pines for a pretty girl he meets on the water, or Nikolai’s cringeworthy attempt at romancing his best friend’s grandmother leaves behind a much more direct tale of how we memorialize the people and things we love. In the end, when Ollie rips the cover away and puts that perfect record on the player, there’s a sense of relief that is felt both by the characters on screen and by the audience, because there’s no record that is too beautiful not to listen to. Keeping the record in the box means it goes unheard, its true value as an encapsulation of Charlie and Hal’s perfect moment lost forever. If no one hears a record, how can we know it’s beautiful? If we choose not to experience a work of art, how can we say we’ve understood it, or appreciated what it has to offer?