Written and Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis | 94 min | Mubi and On Demand
Swallow is a single-minded psychological thriller that reaches for the unbearable queasiness of body horror, but in such a discreet way as to undercut the suggestion of genre. That’s fully to its credit. It stands as a character study and a bloody, bold statement about the ways in which women and their bodies are controlled and co-opted by men.
That said, the film’s opening act is splashed with the promise of lurid thrills. Hunter (Haley Bennett, extraordinary) was working in retail when she met her husband, Richie (Austin Stowell, convincingly douchey), and married into a life of comfort and housewifery. They live in a glass box, a modernist mansion in the Hudson Valley purchased by the parents-in-law (Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche). A first impression of Hunter is of someone entirely free of self awareness, perfectly happy to spend her days making her husband happy. Soon, she’s pregnant.
That’s when she starts on a non-food diet, going from swallowing a marble to horrifically pointy, household items. When Richie finds out, and kinda clueless himself, he blames her for her pica disorder with no sense at all that this psychological condition could have been triggered by her lack of agency in this marriage and repressed trauma in her past.
I won’t say more about the plot, but what starts to become clear — to Hunter and to us — is there’s a steep price to be paid in traditional relationships that sustain a steeply patriarchal power dynamic. The journey she goes on, with Syrian immigrant (Laith Nakli) playing a key role, will force her to locate and develop her survival instincts.
Props to sterling character actor Denis O’Hare, who shows up briefly to meet Bennett’s rising intensity with plenty of his own.
Swallow isn’t to be trifled with. I compare it favourably with Todd Haynes’ 1995 masterpiece of suburban discomfort Safe. Like that film, it explores a particularly feminine alienation, but unlike Safe, which cleaves toward medicated, chilly ambiguity in the later going, Swallow bites down on its theme of emancipation. Its final scene is as thrillingly triumphant as anything I’ve seen this year, scored gorgeously to Halifax singer Alana Yorke’s “Anthem.”