Directed by Ari Gold, the opening scene to THE SONG OF SWAY LAKE shows an old watch sinking into dark water. A metaphor for letting go of time, this watch is the first indicator of the film’s twisted temporality. The dark water is contrasted by a succession of slides showing an archival history of the story location, Sway Lake. While the pictures give visual context, The Staves serenade the audience into a 1950s American summer holiday with the tune “Sway Lake”.
The entire plot – a predictable coming of age style – revolves around this song. Angry at the world, Ollie Sway (Rory Culkin) and his best friend Nikolai (Robert Sheehan), plan to steal a rare 78’ recording of “Sway Lake”. Ollie’s anger comes from loss, as his father has just committed suicide from the dock in the dead of winter. This scene strikingly reveals the unhappiness of the Sway family, who once appeared to represent the epitome of the American dream, are presently struggling through a nightmare.
The intricate soundtrack is used as a tool to swing between past and present realities. Nikolai goes wandering around the Sway Lake house, while a piano subtly plays in the background. Nikolai eventually ends up in the office of Ollie’s military grandfather, where the camera pans to a framed article on the wall titled “The Piano Playing Captain”. Fast forward and Mrs Sway (Mary Beth Peil) is sitting in melancholic solitude at her desk. She hears a piano playing, looks up and the camera pans to a uniformed arm playing. This recounts the intertwined heart ache of love and loss from the past and present.
Ollie struggles with knowing his place in the timeline and as such, often floats between the past, present and future. When Ollie sees the dock for the first time since his father’s death, the camera watches Ollie’s face before panning to three strangers sunbathing and swimming. Close ups of a girl with purple hair are shown side to side with shots from the wintry scene of his father’s suicide. This creates a juxtaposition between love and death as Ollie’s present thoughts are interrupted by ones of the past, his father’s suicide remaining a haunting reminder of the uncertainty of the future. In a later image, his father places a box of records down heavily on Ollie’s chest, visualising the suffocating burdens and disconnect that Ollie feels throughout the film.
Cold shots switch between Ollie alone in bed asleep and his father alone in the snow. Ollie’s obsession with the purple-haired girl and his father’s obsession with records connects the two at Sway Lake, this connection is visually emphasised through matching blue hues. Throughout, the cinematography is infused with greens, blues and golds. The cold clashes with the warm, mirroring Ollie’s rollercoaster of emotions through the grief of his father and lust for his new love. Close ups create intimacy and the prevalence of nakedness compliments the balance between confidence and vulnerability. Ollie and Nikolai characterise this balance. Ollie personifies vulnerable, while Nikolai is hilariously unpredictable in confidence, and in my opinion the light in a dark undercurrent of loss, death and helpless love.
THE SONG OF SWAY LAKE is beautiful in cinematography and playful in sound. The plot is a basic coming-of-age one, however the film’s temporality remains interesting. The plot of the stolen record is relevant however the discussion around its rarity remains unremarkable. Taken together, however, THE SONG OF SWAY LAKE entertains in a poignant and thought provoking way.