Written & Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis
They have sold Swallow as a body horror film, but it is by no means that at all. Instead, Swallow is a dark character study, grounded in reality and not really horrific, though very disturbing. The film’s visuals and sound design are right on point, but I think the narrative lacks any subtext. There are points in the movie where characters literally say the theme out loud and undermine any sort of tension or nuance that could have been. It’s not a bad movie, but not one really worth of repeated examination because it essentially lays everything out on the table without ambiguity.
Hunter (Haley Bennett) was a working-class woman from upstate New York who married Richie and now lives in a lavish remote home, frittering her days merely meandering around the place. She can feel that she doesn’t fit here, but Hunter puts on a good face and pushes through. Then Hunter learns she’s pregnant, which is met with celebration by Richie and his parents but finds her spiraling into psychosis. After reading a passage in a self-help book to do something unexpected every day, Hunter swallows a single marble. This begins the development of her pica disorder, eating inedible objects in secret. This includes a push pin that tears her up going down and coming out.
I was worried Swallow would delve into body-horror as related to pregnancy, and thankfully the film avoids that angle. Instead, it focuses on how her in-laws try to control and break her so that she can provide them with an heir. We don’t get much development of these supporting characters, and I think the movie would have benefitted from the audience understanding them a little more. Maybe if the writing was a little tighter, it wouldn’t have taken more time to do that. The mother-in-law was a more complex character, but she still didn’t get enough scenes to explore the conflict between her and Hunter.
I think Haley Bennett does an excellent job with the material. She can present a woman hiding behind a veneer of domesticity so well and let us see the cracks form. There are affectations she takes on, like a mock breathy Marilyn Monroe voice that adds to the sense of artificiality. The costume designers and hairstylists use their elements to communicate change over time. By the end of the picture, she doesn’t resemble her original self at all. Her descent into mental illness doesn’t feel like a caricature and is subtle. The story doesn’t necessarily explore how society punishes women for not complying with expectations, though. It’s definitely hinted at but never to the harrowing degree the film could if it wanted to venture into existential horror territory.
There’s a third act appearance by character actor Dennis O’Hare which is the best scene of the picture and isn’t horror in tone. I think I would have enjoyed Swallow more if it had just gone for the thoughtful character study like last year’s Diane. That picture felt bleak and was rough to watch, but it didn’t’ try to sensationalize or overly stylize what was happening on screen. The back and forth between O’Hare and Bennett was the first time the entire film I really felt an emotional tug. I just wish there had been so many more moments like that.