From the moment we meet Hunter (Haley Bennett), we know that despite appearances she doesn't have it all. The obvious trophy wife to her Ken-doll hubby Richie (Austin Stowell), Hunter lives in an immaculate retro-styled home that hints of the 50's yet is set squarely in the modern day. In this opening moment, Hunter radiates an aura of withered submission that lets you know there's not just trouble in paradise - there is no paradise.
We'll see this soon enough, of course.
We'll see it in the way that Richie dines with her but is never really present. He's never really, at least not initially, downright cruel to her. It's worse, really. He's more dismissive of the value of her presence.
We'll see it in the way that her in-laws (played by David Rasche and Elizabeth Marvel) control her every move even when she's not moving.
We'll see it in the way that Haley moves and breathes, flinches and curls. With glazed over stares and a body that feels like it's in a permanent fetal position, Hunter lives in a seemingly idyllic world in which she doesn't actually exist.
When Hunter discovers that she is pregnant, the world cracks open just a sliver so that we can see how this child is immediately idolized as the family's future heir of responsibility and riches and the control of Hunter's life is ratcheted up to an even greater degree.
Losing herself, Hunter seeks control in whatever way she can and thus Swallow becomes one of the year's most riveting psychological thrillers by weaving together body-horror and the #MeToo movement into a story wrapped around one woman's becoming lost in the world of pica, an oft-misunderstood psychological disorder in which people, for reasons only barely understood, feel the compulsion to eat inedible objects frequently to the point of self-harm and possible lethality.
Hunter's initial flirtation with pica is seductive, a glass marble eyeballed with a look not far removed from that which she must have given Richie not so long ago before the prize was won and his attention wandered toward his role in his father's business. We know where this is going, of course, though it's still highly suspenseful to watch it unfold. She swallows it quickly, only later retrieving it once it has been passed and she looks admiringly at this symbol of her control. This was the first time, but it won't be the last as objects become larger and sharper and more potentially dangerous to both Hunter and her unborn child. This will be discovered, of course, and this discovery will, instead of giving Hunter the control of her life that she desires, lead those around her to tighten her submission through a therapist who is closely controlled and a hired caregiver (Laith Nakli) tasked with watching her every move.
It's surprising and a little exhausting just how much of Swallow is suspenseful. The threat of Hunter swallowing another object is constantly present, while the always present risk of her unborn child being harmed lingering in the air like a dense, enveloping fog. Writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis makes us wait, not so patiently, for the story to unfold and despite our deep discomfort with Richie and his parents Mirabella-Davis refuses to easily demonize them for being high expectation people living in a high expectation world. Richie is not a beast of a human being nor is his mother devoid of any semblance of humanity. Hunter is also held accountable for her actions, her own timidity and submissiveness often deemed as a personal choice - perhaps in recognition that she has married above her means and outside the world for which she has a frame of reference. It's as if she willingly committed herself to this world and is now caught between self-loathing and a desperate fight for survival.
The first clue that there's far more going on in Swallow than pica itself comes with the recognition that as a diagnosis pica is far more attributable to health concerns than it is to a psychological disorder. While it is treated as a mental health diagnosis, its roots are typically medical in nature and yet such a reason is never offered here.
Indeed, Swallow is true body-horror to the highest degree.
The first half of Swallow is structured almost entirely around our own growing horror over Hunter's increasingly severe behavior turned into coping skill turned into habit. Mirabella-Davis largely keeps these actions from taking a graphic nature, stressing Hunter's experience of it all rather than the behavior itself. However, the second half of Swallow detours, at times a bit less satisfyingly, into revelations that could comprise the foundation of these behaviors including everything from traumatic experiences to an ever-present political tension. These explanations at times resonate emotionally, while other times they almost hint of a common myth easily debunked. Todd Haynes's Safe is a never fading cinematic shadow here.
Swallow is never less than mesmerizing and this is especially true for Haley Bennett's remarkable, disciplined, and absolutely unforgettable performance. Bennett captured the Best Actress Prize at the Tribeca Film Festival along with the same prize at Woodstock Film Festival, Neuchatel International Fantastic Film Festival, and Brooklyn Horror Film Festival. The film itself won numerous fest prizes before being picked up by indie distributor IFC Films for a limited nationwide release that kicks off on March 6th and includes a stop in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Here's hoping the film finds its way to Indy.
The film's #MeToo elements are undeniable and cooked to perfection by Erin Magill's pristine, retro production design that gives glimpses into a world that feels so very 50's yet remains so very relevant. Nathan Halpern's original music serves as a subtle companion, occasionally haunting and quite often heightening the film's psychological suspense. Lensing by Katelin Arizmendi is nothing short of unnerving, practically capturing the cracks in everyone's facade while never flinching as Hunter's entire psyche seems to move toward disintegration.
In addition to Bennett's masterful performance, David Rasche serves up his usual dependable turn that feels normal until it doesn't while Elizabeth Marvel is, without a doubt, a marvel of disciplined manipulation and control. Austin Stowell breathes just enough humanity into Richie to keep us from hating him, while Laith Nakli shines as Luay and Elise Santora adds conflict and therapeutic uncertainty as Dr. Reyes.
Swallow is a remarkable feature film debut from Carlo Mirabella-Davis, a work of exceptional storytelling that comes alive through the big and little ways that Bennett brings Hunter to life and transforms her in ways that feel jarring yet honest. In addition to its theatrical release, Swallow will be available on VOD starting March 6th.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic