Review by Craig Draheim
Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Writer: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Starring: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare
You cannot have a film title like Swallow without the plot being consumed around the consumption of something… You could but where’s the fun in that. The focus of the story is around Hunter (Haley Bennett), who’s in an emotionally distant marriage with her husband, Richie (Austin Stowell) and his wealthy family. After she finds out she’s pregnant, Hunter develops pica, a psychological disorder characterized by the appetite of non-nutritive substances. What follows is the family tightening their control of Hunter while she struggles with her own identity.
From this synopsis or if you’ve seen the trailer, there’s a good chance you’ll know what the story is about. It’s a common theme, most popularly tracing back to 1879 with Henrik Ibsen’s stage play A Doll’s House, where a woman claims her independence in an environment where she’s treated like an object. With that said, any idea can be reused with a unique perspective and a strong artistic voice, and fortunately Swallow has that in strides. From the production design, which is stylish yet grounded, to Bennett’s heartbreaking and anxiety-raising performance, it’s a piece that engages in an elegant character study over thriller plot devices. Aligning itself with the body horror found in David Cronenberg’s more nuanced work (Dead Ringers and Crash), it is destined to become polarizing. Some will greatly enjoy it and others will find a meandering arthouse flick, criticizing its lack of “story” or thriller elements. I’m sure it’s clear where I stand. However, no matter what camp you fall into, there is no denying that this is an extraordinary feature debut from Mirabella-Davis.
Much of the conflict comes from Hunter trying to keep up appearances as the stereotypical 1950s housewife in modern day. Throughout the film her husband and in-laws uncover her past and suppressed trauma that she has yet to confront, lending the pica plot device as a spot-on metaphor. There is the potential of the characterization to be a little too on-the-nose with its housewife stereotype, but Bennett’s portrayal brings an authenticity that saves it from becoming a cliché.
The 94-minute runtime does incredible favors for a film of this nature, making any of the meandering points mentioned prior, seem purposeful and not filler. But it is the second half where Hunter’s internal struggle comes to the surface that Mirabella-Davis pushes the aesthetic and gorgeous cinematography to the back and allows the writing and directing to really shine. A major highlight is an exchange between Hunter and her biological father that brings with it two performances buried in emotional tension and culmination of anxiety building to that moment. This allows Swallow to cross the threshold from a “pretty” but shallow movie to something of substance. As we begin to see her unravel and pushing back against her controllers, it’s engaging, flies by, and showcases Bennett in a way that has you wondering why she isn’t more broadly recognized.
As I stated in the beginning, if you watch the trailer, read the synopsis, or even this review, you will have a general idea of how this film will go. And I admit even my own preconceived notions impacted my viewing during the first 15 minutes. Beyond that, Swallow is a well-honed character-study, delicately dissecting the psyche of the protagonist and earning its place in the artistry of cinematic storytelling.