In relationships, sometimes you shouldn’t tell the other person the truth. Maybe you want to spare their feelings. Perhaps it’s better to let them hold onto their version of events rather than filling in the whole picture for them. It’s not a deception so much as it is an act of love. We want to protect that person, after all, shielding them from something potentially traumatizing or hurtful. Is it really a lie if it’s for a good cause?
This Friday, Swan Song comes to theaters and Apple TV+, presenting a provocative test case for the kinds of white lies we tell our significant other. The sci-fi drama stars Mahershala Ali as Cameron, who’s got a pretty wonderful life. His musician wife Poppy (Naomie Harris) adores him. His son Cory (Dax Rey) is a really sweet kid. Everything would be great for Cameron except for one snag: He suffers from seizures, a symptom of a terminal disease that will kill him sooner rather than later. He’s kept this development — and the seizures — from his family, not wanting to upset them, but how much longer can he possibly hide this from Poppy? Eventually, he’s going to have to come clean.
Or maybe not. In writer-director Benjamin Cleary’s film, which is set in some not-too-far-off moment in the future, Cameron meets Dr. Scott (Glenn Close), a cutting-edge scientist who has created an incredible, top-secret service in which the dying can travel to her remote facility, get cloned and then stay there until their demise, the clone taking over their real lives without their loved ones ever being the wiser. Movies like Multiplicity have looked at the comedic possibilities of people duplicating themselves in order to be more productive or to have a fill-in do the shit you yourself would rather skip. But in Swan Song, the premise is approached from a much more melancholy perspective: Cameron’s perfect duplicate, whom they name Jack (also played by Ali), will essentially take over for him. If all goes well, Poppy and Cory will never notice anything’s changed.
I’ve seen Swan Song twice, and both times I’ve been affected by Cleary’s matter-of-fact manner. The film doesn’t waste time explaining how this cloning process works, or how Scott manages to keep this hush-hush business afloat. (One of its weirder aspects is that her facility doubles as final-destination lodging for her dying clientele, which includes Awkwafina as a single mom who’s recently undergone the procedure, her clone now out there in the world with her daughter.) Swan Song skips past the hows so that we can focus on Cameron’s mixed feelings about saying goodbye to his family without, y’know, actually saying goodbye to them. The dark irony is that he’ll succeed if his wife and child don’t have a clue that he’s even gone.
That’s a bittersweet notion, suggesting the lengths some will go not to cause sorrow for their loved ones. But the more I think about Swan Song, the more it occurs to me that there’s also something ominous at the story’s core. Yes, Cameron wants to keep Poppy and Cory clueless, but also, he really wants to keep them clueless. And that’s made me think about Poppy in particular, and how I’d feel if my wife, if she were secretly dying, quietly replaced herself with a clone. Sure, I’d never know, but does the fact that I’ve been thoroughly duped actually make it better? When’s a white lie something worse?
There are complicated reasons why Cameron doesn’t discuss his condition with Poppy. For one thing, they’ve been going through a tough time in their relationship. But probably more importantly is that, not so long ago, Poppy’s brother died, leaving her inconsolable for months. (In one of the film’s perhaps too-clever bits of narrative rhyming, her brother was actually her twin.) Cameron thinks she’s endured enough misery — he can’t let his situation affect her. Better, he figures, to orchestrate a monumental deception instead.
But there’s something that seems especially masculine about that thought process. Even as he’s dying, Cameron feels like he needs to “fix” the problem. Rather than deal with messy emotions — or have faith that his amazing wife is strong enough to absorb this terrible news — Cameron takes the decision out of Poppy’s hands, making the choice for both of them without ever discussing it with her. Although it’s done with the best of intentions — he loves her so much that he doesn’t want her to be sad — Cameron’s decision is, nonetheless, really selfish, which Swan Song doesn’t acknowledge.
It’s not that he should be punished, but an even more thought-provoking film would have pondered the implications of his subterfuge. Of all the emotions swirling within Cameron throughout Swan Song, guilt is surprisingly not one of them. (In case you’re wondering, Scott explains to Cameron that Jack, within a certain amount of time, will forget he’s a clone, essentially erasing any trail back to the facility. That’s an awfully convenient way for the movie to sidestep the problem of how Jack might feel about his role in this lie.) Swan Song is so focused on how this choice will impact Cameron that it doesn’t spend much time considering Poppy’s possible stance on all this.
All relationships go through these sorts of ethical gray areas, albeit rarely at the level experienced in Swan Song. Normally, the lies are smaller. (Don’t tell her what her friend confided in you about that one coworker getting a promotion. Maybe don’t mention to him that article you saw about the thing he’s worrying about.) In these instances, the rationale is often “Why upset the person with something they can’t do anything about anyway?” You’re withholding the truth when it’s only bound to hurt them.
But in Cleary’s film, Cameron’s decision is far graver, treated like a brave act of self-sacrifice for the happiness of his family. Scott presents her cloning technology as peace of mind for the dying, a way for the soon-to-be-departed to feel that they’re leaving their loved ones in good hands — namely, themselves. Yet what Swan Song never has to wrestle with, which the rest of us have to in the real world, is how that decision to lie can sometimes create a silent, invisible barrier between us and our partner. They don’t know what we know, but we know it, and that knowledge can feel like a tiny, permanent betrayal — a moment forever marked in time when we felt like we knew better how to handle something than they did.
Hopefully, none of us will face the predicament that Cameron confronts. And although I won’t reveal how Swan Song resolves itself, these questions about trust, lies and our presumptions that we know better are never fully answered. The movie’s suspense comes from what might happen if Poppy finds out what’s going on. I’d argue what’s even more unnerving is the possibility of what happens if she never does.