Imagine, if you will, a marble. A smooth, colorful sphere of glass that feels cool to the touch and looks just like the candy you used to suck on as a kid. It is tantalizing in a way, alluring in its shape. Now imagine popping it into your mouth and taking one big swallow, letting that smooth glass glide down your throat like a forbidden ice cube. While such a prospect may disgust you, this is a coping mechanism for Hunter (Haley Bennett, The Girl On The Train) of Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ latest film, Swallow.
Hunter is a young woman who has married rich. Very rich. Her husband Richie (Austin Stowell) is high up in his father’s company and never stops working. In exchange, Hunter is expected to be the perfect housewife. She must cook every meal, keep the house spotless, and decorate impeccably. She must also look perfect while doing it, as her beautiful blonde bob sits just so and her colorful dresses hug her every curve. Hunter has a role and she must stick to it. That’s the deal.
“This is not a film about a ghost, a supernatural monster, or even a serial killer. It is a film about the terrors our own loved ones can inflict upon us.”
But Hunter resents it. She tries to play the role and keep a smile sitting on her lips, but that veneer of perfection begins to crack. Slowly, she becomes attracted to hard textures, first in the form of crunching ice cubes. As her teeth crush the cold solids, she feels peace and control. There is something about the act of eating something so hard and almost taboo that brings her momentary peace. Hunter develops Pica, a disorder where a person consumes inedible objects. She swallows marbles, batteries, thumbtacks, and more. And she collects them when they pass through her system. In this immaculate house sits a collection of objects Hunter has literally shit out, a secret she has for herself, a private joke that spits in the face of the wealthy.
But as she discovers she is pregnant and her husband realizes she has Pica, Hunter is quickly treated as if she is insane and unable to function. She is swiftly medicated, given a live-in nurse, and taken to therapy where her therapist reports back to Richie. Hunter’s life is not her own and her rage bubbles over as she begins to recognize her own trauma and her own desire for a life that she can be proud of.
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Swallow is, in a word, devastating. No matter how much Hunter primps, polishes, and poses, there is always something to be criticized. She is a rock being worn down by the waves of passive-aggressive comments from both her husband and her in-laws. She is painfully aware of her place in the world and knows that she is nothing with Richie’s money. But is it worth it? Swallow is a harrowing look at how rich men believe they are owed anything and everything they want. Women are merely a currency, an accessory, something to bear children and host parties. There is no value granted to the female body outside of its ability to grant men what they themselves cannot achieve.
But Hunter wants control, too, and develops Pica as a method of control. Pica is often a subset of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, a mental disorder where the brain fixates on certain irrational thoughts and actions. It is often about trying to gain control over the uncontrollable and find ways to prevent disasters through repetitive actions. However, OCD is often used as a punchline, a personality quirk reserved for gags. Swallow finally provides a realistic and careful examination of the disorder. It is never romanticized or played for laughs; rather it is shown as a very real and potentially harmful manifestation of anxiety that is often born of trauma.
“Swallow is, in a word, devastating…”
Haley Bennett steals the show as Hunter. She plays a young woman trying to play a housewife with such heartbreaking sincerity. Bennett is able to capture Hunter’s desperation, frustration, and small sparks of joy in even the shortest lines. Her face rises in elation as she receives words of approval and falls with each back-handed compliment. For most of the film, Hunter is alone, so Bennett must convey Hunter’s emotional state through perfect silence. The way Bennett longingly holds, looks at, and eventually eats inedible objects is haunting. It is the only thing that brings her happiness.
In contrast to Bennett is Stowell’s Richie and his parents, played by Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche. Each of their lines is uttered with such venom, you can’t help but hate every one of them from the moment they come on screen. Each actor plays an abhorrent rich person eerily well, creating villains out of everyday people. They utter words full of hate so casually, you do a double-take and ask yourself, Did they really just say that? These are the nasty in-laws you pray you don’t have, who needle and interfere with your life because they believe they are owed your every move.
Everyone’s desire for control is reflected in the film’s aesthetics as everything in the homes of the rich is perfectly in place. Furniture is placed at the precise angle, colors of walls are carefully picked, and the house must look like no one actually lives in it. The house is the pinnacle of a curated aesthetic that is not necessarily comfortable but portrays a certain status. It is beautiful, yet sterile, like a museum full of delicate objects that will crumble if you even breathe on them the wrong way. Even the domestic space is designed to appear hostile.
Swallow is the film I have been waiting for. It is an honest portrayal of the symptoms of OCD and how trauma manifests in strange, distressing ways. It is by no means an easy film to watch, between Hunter’s constant emotional abuse at the hands of her family and her increasing need to eat dangerous objects. But it is an important film to watch, one that stretches the boundaries of genre film and what horror means. This is not a film about a ghost, a supernatural monster, or even a serial killer. It is a film about the terrors our own loved ones can inflict upon us. Swallow is a film about a fight for control and what it truly means to achieve autonomy over your life.
“…an important film to watch, one that stretches the boundaries of genre film and what horror means.’
From IFC Films, Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Have you seen Swallow? is in select theatres and on demand March 6, 2020. Let us know what you think of the film, and of Haley Bennett’s incredible performance over on Twitter, in the Nightmare on Film Street SubReddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!