Swallow was written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, and stars Haley Bennett as Hunter, a newly-pregnant housewife stuck in a loveless, confining marriage to a rich company man (Austin Stowell) who will soon be taking over as head of his father’s corporation. Hunter is discontented with her life, staying at home all day with almost nothing to do apart from cook, clean, play games on her phone, and wait for her husband to get home, only for him to barely give her so much as a few minutes of his time before shrugging her off in lieu of pursuing his own, more money-centric interests. What her husband doesn’t know, however, is that Hunter has been plagued by a particularly parasitic form of addiction that could seriously jeopardize the fate of their first child: she swallows things. From marbles, to thumb tacks, to entire batteries, Hunter continues to give in to this condition that she has, and as the tension at home and her husband’s apathy towards her begin to escalate, so to does the nature of what she puts in her body. With no underlying, hereditary conditions that Hunter knows of, and very little in the way of information regarding her parents and her past, the nature of her actions remains a relatively unsolvable mystery, and she is forced to reckon with the fact that this may be the only thing she is able to actually control, since the rest of her life has been so methodically stolen from her. But will she manage to overcome her own unhappiness by participating in what she thinks she can control, or will her addiction ultimately control her, binding her to a doomed eventual fate? This movie also stars Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, Luna Lauren Velez, Laith Nakli, Zabryna Guevara, and David Rasche.
I hadn’t heard much about this movie before watching it apart from some little snippets from other critics who had watched it and reviewed it – it was hard to sit through, it was deeply uncomfortable, it was brilliantly directed and performed, etc – so I was unsure what to expect. My initial understanding was that Swallow was a uniquely crafted horror movie unlike most others, and certainly unlike anything else released in 2020 thus far, and it certainly is both of those things, at once undefinable and belonging to a very specific subgenre of horror that places more emphasis on how a character responds to their common circumstances than on how they react to any unusual activity happening around them. However, I’m not sure categorizing Swallow as a horror film is entirely the right approach, even if it does seem to be the genre into which the film most aptly fits.
It is simultaneously difficult and a task of complete ease to avoid spoilers when talking about this movie; the thing is, there’s not that much to spoil that couldn’t be spoiled by simply watching the trailer for this film itself, but that’s also not the point. The point of the film is what lies behind those plot points one might consider spoilers – the motivations of the characters, the little beats between the plot points that make up what this movie is really about. The greatest thing about Swallow is what it does to the audience over the course of the film. Writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis continuously puts the viewer in deeply uncomfortable positions, forcing us to reckon with two truths we know to be wrongfully minded and asking us to choose between the more immediately and the more patiently insidious; as we dive deeper into the first two acts, we begin to understand that Hunter’s husband and in-laws only take an interest in her when they are attempting to place her back under their control, to relegate her to the circles of their lives that they wish her to exist in without resistance or individuality, and the child she is due to have is (metaphorically, anyway) the manifestation of their control over her life. Yet we also know that what Hunter is doing is dangerous, bordering on fatal, and our empathy for her character begs her to stop, even as we know that if she doesn’t, her husband will use the child as a final means of stomping out what individuality she has left. As the tension continues to build in the film itself, the tension also builds in the audience’s inner struggle to grapple with the horror on screen, even as we cannot help but be utterly transfixed by what we are watching.
That utter transfixion is only further heightened by the cinematography of Katelin Aeizmendi, whose still images are perfectly positioned, practically making the entire film a photo book of beautifully-framed portraits of a life in crisis, so much so that when the camera switches to a hand-held style, we immediately know what the camerawork is attempting to communicate: a jarring, unfocused sense of not being in control, which comes through not just in what we’re seeing on screen, but how we’re seeing it. Combining this style with the deft hand of film editor Joe Murphy, the film’s sense of visual communication with its audience is among the most effective I’ve ever seen, and pairs more than perfectly with Haley Bennett’s lead performance, which indeed is perhaps the best of her career.
Bennett is a revelation in this movie; when she first popped up on my radar in the sincerely underrated Hardcore Henry, and then again in the promising but ultimately underwhelming Girl on the Train opposite Emily Blunt, one could tell that she had the right stuff to make it as an actress unbound by a particular type of role. Yet, for a little while, it seemed as if she hadn’t quite hit the stride we all knew she was capable of, always impressing but rarely getting the spotlight she deserved from the beginning. In Swallow, she absolutely commands every second of her screen-time, no one daring to upstage her even if they were capable of doing so, and in this movie, no one can be capable due to just how fantastic her performance is. It is that performance which allows the audience to empathize so profoundly with a character we don’t want to root for, but are unable to root against. We are simultaneously fascinated by what she wants and disgusted when she gets it, completely at the mercy of what she experiences and unable to take our eyes off of hers with every frame. This truly is Haley Bennett’s best work to date (so far as I’ve seen, anyhow), and whatever casting agents see this film are definitely going to want to book her as soon as possible, if only because they’ll be competing for her time with everyone else in the film market as well.
Another benefit this film has over other horrors that have released recently its score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern. The film doesn’t contain a lot of music, but what is there is excellent, at once accentuating of the horror we’ve come to know, and partially sorrowful of what horrors may or may not be to come, like something out of a Phantom Thread-esque relationship drama that tells us more about these characters’ inner lives than we might wish to know, but are nonetheless accepting of, regardless of how it makes us feel (even when we mostly feel uneasy). It’s a score that lingers in the memory, even as rarely as it actually appears in the film. I expect we’ll be hearing more of Halpern’s work in this and many other genres for a long time to come.
Where the film begins to lose its audience is really in the third act, when some clues about Hunter’s past and the origins of her family begin to distract from the horror that we’ve come to experience so far, almost building a second narrative that we’ve only barely explored in the film’s previous story points. I won’t spend too much time on it, so as to avoid spoilers, but even though what is there is fairly deep, rich territory for character exploration, there’s not much of it that we actually get to explore, and its connection to the larger narrative seems a tad flimsy, even in its stronger moments. Still, it does little to detract from what we’ve seen so far, and Bennett’s performance is such that one forgives it almost immediately as soon as the final shot comes in.
Swallow is one of the more uniquely crafted horrors I’ve seen in recent years, both a treatise on a woman’s control of her individuality (or a lack thereof), and a portrait of the uncomfortable ways in which she might take it back, even if that means damaging parts of herself (both literally and metaphorically) to do so. The performances all around are excellent, with Haley Bennett’s lead being a career-best, razor-sharp reflection of desperation for control, and the cinematography of Katelin Aeizmendi, paired with the editing of Joe Murphy, displaying near-perfect visual communication of exactly what the audience is meant to know. Whether this sort of movie is your thing or not, Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ precision of the craft is undeniable, and whether the film ends up as one of the best of the year or not (though it certainly could, given the state of movie releases at the moment), it certainly is one of the best and most singular of the year thus far.
I’m giving “Swallow” an 8.9/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.