Courtesy of IFC Films
In Carol Mirabella-Davis’s directorial debut “Swallow” the tone is set from the beginning. We meet Haley Bennet as Hunter, the perfect, expendable housewife desperate to please her husband Richie (Austin Stowell). They live in a Barbie dream home complete with the perfect kitchen, in-ground pool, and walk-in closets galore. Erin Magill’s production design is eerily on point in these first scenes while making us question our own sanity: is that sofa pushed off-center just a smidge? And what’s with those ugly drapes in the bedroom? It’s the subtle and nuanced details that put this viewer on edge, and that was before the main character started sticking foreign objects down her throat.
“Swallow” is a prolonged character study of isolation and self-esteem. Sure, Hunter bounces around the house proclaiming “how lucky” she is, though her face screams anguish. She passes the days by playing mindless games on her phone and deciding what to eat for lunch while hubby - the managing director of the family business (what that is, I couldn’t tell you) - brings home the bacon. The film’s message is a strong one in a pro-feminist era, but the troubled heroine is both stuck in a spat of depression and vastly overprivieged. Not exactly a happy medium.
After all, Hunter’s life, on the surface, is rather tidy and comfortable but she’s got a secret that steams for a traumatic experience. Hunter likes to swallow things, bad things like marbles, batteries, and jacks. And once she finds out she’s pregnant, she begins ingesting more harmful and dangerous objects. Some of that might not slide with mainstream audiences, but one can appreciate the metaphor on women’s reproductive rights and toxic masculinity that lead to this grueling disorder.
As the film starts rolling back the curtain on Hunter’s childhood, it turns out, she wasn’t all that privileged. She grew up unwanted and untalented: as her nagging mother-in-law constantly reminds her - and is told over and over how lucky she is to have found someone like Richie. Clearly, Hunter’s worth to this uptight bureaucratic family only extends to the bun cooking in her oven. It begs the question of who gets a say over Hunter’s body, because the more she tries to be independent, the stricter Richie's overbearing family becomes, even going as far to hire a live-in nurse to keep an eye on things.
“Swallow” goes to near extreme levels and Bennet is tasked with conveying a sense of quiet, somber, restraint, but can’t be afraid to search for a way out. Bennet- who is also an executive producer - doesn’t go the easy, self pity route, and instead tries to build a character from a syndrome not many folks are aware of. Mirabella-Davis has crafted some unique shots amplified by Nathan Halpern’s enigmatic scoring which come in handy during stressful and cringeworthy moments (eating a sharp needle anyone?)
I will say, the last 30 minutes of “Swallow” detour down a path unexpected, which, for better or worse, disrupts the vibe and tone set forth in the first hour, which moves rather quickly. It involves a confrontation with Denis O’Hare, and though it makes sense in the grand scheme of the picture, the inclusion seemed messy and like an afterthought. It’s a bit of business that gives Bennet the chance to show off her emotional dexterity but it felt like a buffer more than an addition. Regardless, “Swallow” is still a fascinating descent into the age old battle of women’s rights and the societal norms expected of them and how that can lead down a dark and scary rabbit hole.
SWALLOW is now available to rent on all digital platforms.