Writer and director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ haunting debut narrative feature Swallow is a taunt, unnerving psychological thriller with horror elements that’s definitely not for the squeamish. And you may want to save those snacks for another movie.
Hunter (Haley Bennett) has just married into the stifling, privileged patriarchy of the Conrad family. She’s moved into a stylish, if rather sterile, modern home with her husband Richie (Austin Stowell), a gift to the couple from his father (David Rasche), whom Richie works for. Mother-to-be Hunter is clearly expected to be a Stepford wife-like model of perfection. Spending her days isolated in her home (sound familiar?), she focuses on keeping the house immaculately presented, as if it’s about to appear on the cover of an interior design magazine. On the surface she appears to be holding things together, plastering a smile on her face, but we can clearly see she’s feeling uneasy in her new life. Meanwhile Hunter’s dashing husband is all bleached white teeth, perfectly toned body and impeccable grooming, with Stowell skilfully giving us the occasional glimpse of what’s behind Richie’s mask of social acceptability.
Hunter’s frosty new mother-in-law Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel) believes the young woman might be suffering from perinatal depression and gives her a self-help book titled A Talent For Joy. Inspired by the book to do something spontaneous, and apparently gaining a sense of control over her life, Hunter begins swallowing inedible, often dangerous objects. Starting with a marble, she later cuts her tongue while trying to swallow a tack she retrieves from the vacuum cleaner. The image of the perfect newlyweds is severely disrupted by her husband’s discovery that she’s self-harming in this way and threatening the life of their unborn child. Once admitted to hospital, we journey with a camera down her throat to retrieve a safety pin she’s recently swallowed and she’s diagnosed with an eating disorder, pica.
Haley Bennett, who has won several awards for the role including Best Actress at last year’s Tribeca, brings an intense fragility to Hunter. There’s a captivating on-the-edge unpredictability to her nuanced performance, which conveys both a vulnerability and sense danger about the character. Both of these qualities are on display in a compelling scene that sees Hunter using sex as a form of punishment and a bargaining tool to get an apology out of Richie.
Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi’s exactingly composed, mainly static camera work, echoes the precise geometric shapes of the couple’s home and reflects the surface perfection the Conrad family is trying to project. Similarly there’s often a rather stylised, unnatural quality to the careful placement of the characters within the frame. All of which serves to heighten our sense of Hunter’s feelings of confinement, figuratively and later literarily.
It’s tricky to analyse the film’s themes without substantial spoilers, but what initially works as suspenseful, can’t-look-away terror, deepens with an exploration of the impact of sexual assault and a woman’s right to have agency over her body.
Swallow is available on demand and through digital platforms now in the USA. Digital Platforms: iTunes, Amazon, GooglePlay/YouTube, Vudu, PlayStation. Cable Platforms: Comcast Xfinity, Spectrum (Charter, Time Warner, Brighthouse), Verizon Fios, Altice (Optimum), Cox, DirecTV, AT&T, Bend Broadband, Buckeye, Guadalupe Valley, Hotwire Communications, Metrocast, Suddenlink, WOW Internet Cable, RCN and Midcontinent Communications. For more details head to the official IFC Films page for Swallow here.