Swallow Review: A compelling, tense, and unique thriller that leaves a lump in your throat
With his feature debut, Swallow, writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis crafts a stomach-turning tale of a woman looking for control of her own life that’s elevated through a top-notch performance from Haley Bennett.
The film centers on Hunter (Bennett), a housewife whose life is pretty much in control of everyone else around her as she’s pretty much treated like a child that they have to take care of. Holding in her frustrations and worries that get worse when she becomes pregnant, the only solace and sense of control Hunter finds in her life is when she is swallowing things – like strange things. From marbles to thumbtacks, Hunter becomes more obsessed with swallowing foreign objects regardless the harmful effects it has on her body. As she becomes more fixated on swallowing, she is forced to reconcile with the dark secrets of her past that are possibly causing this fixation to occur and take control of her life.
Initially, what made Swallow too curious to resist was Hunter’s Pica disorder, a psychological disorder where those afflicted have an irresistible appetite non-nutritive substance, and it’s just as fascinating and chill-inducing as expected. Seeing Hunter swallow marbles and even just eat dirt like its normal food is both strangely comical at times and oddly horrifying throughout. Every time she picks something up or even heads into a bathroom it’s almost instinctive to tense up and seeing how this obsession affects her body is even scarier. It takes a certain level of commitment, both acting and directing, to show this disorder in an effective way and keep it realistic and Bennet and Mirabella-Davis exceed that commitment level with ease.
However, Swallow is much more than the strange disorder it showcases as it actually depicts a strangely empowering and enlightening story about a woman searching for control. Right from the start you can tell that Hunter feels trapped as her husband Richie (Austin Stowell) and everyone else basically treat her with no respect or interest in her own ideas. Even when she feels proud about her decorating or gets an opportunity to express herself, she’s shut down and is forced into what other people want her to do. When she makes mistakes like accidently burning one of Richie’s ties, she’s literally treated like a kid and made to believe that she can’t do anything herself. Even when her swallowing compulsion is discovered, Richie and everyone else really look at her and treat her like she’s a freak and essentially convince herself the same thing. Swallow is truly a compelling one two punch in showing gaslighting and how people view mental illness with Bennett in center giving a knock-out performance.
Frankly, if this film came out towards the end of the year, Bennett would be a strong candidate for accolades as her performance elevates the film’s alluring title to take on more meaning. From her own happiness to her pride, it’s hard not to feel like Hunter has swallowed quite a lot in her life in order to maintain this idea of happiness. While she starts the film with a timid voice and a trembling nervousness to make those around her happy, she certainly doesn’t end that way and Bennett really makes you feel Hunter’s arc. Every time she’s simply disregarded or loses her trust in someone, viewers can really see how it hurts Hunter and makes her swallowing obsession feel like the only escape for her. When she ultimately does take control and begins to reconcile with her dark secrets, Bennett becomes a true force to be reckoned with and thrives in the thrilling nature of the film’s final act.
It’s also worth mentioning that the supporting performances, especially from Stowell, are very strong and play a pivotal role in making viewers understand Hunter’s issues. Stowell creates an incredibly intriguing villain in Richie as his narcissistic and subtly controlling personality make you understand why Hunter feels like she’s in a choking bind. It’s a really strong performance from Stowell that’s stems from the strong character writing and direction from Mirabella-Davis. The only area I wish he was stronger though was in giving more direction within the narrative. At times it’s hard to figure out where things are going, and the film moves at such a slow pace that you can feel yourself drifting off and feeling disconnected. Not to mention, what should be a decently fast-moving runtime of 90 minutes feels closer to something over two hours and it’s because the film moves a little too leisurely at times.
Despite it’s minor pacing issues, Swallow is a masterful debut from Mirabella-Davis that has both intriguing horror with the real-life disorder it depicts and an empowering narrative of a woman finding control of her own life that’s elevated through Bennett’s riveting performance. It’s certainly not a film that should be slept on and leaves you with a lump in your throat.