When you think of the word SWALLOW, what do you think of?
For myself, I think of how involuntary an action it is. It’s not something I oftentimes think about until I get sick and my tonsils immediately swell up. Whether or not we realize it, though, the word has a variety of meanings. The word is mostly seen as a verb, with the most ascribed meaning being ‘to enclose or envelop completely.’ We mostly see this when people consume food or liquids. Another meaning for the word can be ‘to stop from expressing’. Rather than verbalize how you are feeling, you keep it to yourself. A mostly physical, sometimes involuntary act that we’ve come to take for granted is transformed into something more when we start parsing the word and its various meanings. This is something I also had to step back and consider after watching Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s SWALLOW. A carefully crafted and thoughtful film that will ruffle some feathers along the way, the film itself has a lot of weight and thematic material to sift through long after the credits stop rolling.
At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to Hunter (Haley Bennett), a newly pregnant housewife who appears to have everything she could ever want. However, as the film progresses, we start to see signs that a privileged lifestyle comes at a price, especially for someone like Hunter who came from nothing. The audience can tell she wants something more for herself but spends the bulk of her time tending to the home and doing whatever she can to please her negligent, narcissistic husband, Richie (Austin Stowell). The pressure to be perfect and to meet unrealistic expectations from both her husband and her in-laws continues to mount though after Hunter gets pregnant despite the fact that they only pay attention to her when she does something outside of the norm for them to castigate. As she tries to establish some semblance of control over herself, Hunter develops a dangerous habit in the form of pica – a condition that has her compulsively swallowing inedible, and oftentimes life-threatening, objects. Once the disorder starts to cause bodily harm and the family finds out, it soon becomes a battle of control that Hunter must fight her way out of or risk losing complete and total freedom.
Personally, this film really pissed me off (but in a good way). The story felt very familiar to me because the socio-political structure of the family and how they behave is very similar to what I have observed in my own family as well as some of my friend’s families growing up. However, while SWALLOW really generated a visceral response from me, it is an immensely important film because of its subtle display of mental and financial abuse. You see, while we are slowly starting to discuss abuse more openly in our media, there is still so much to cover and financial abuse is one of those areas in abusive relationships that haven’t quite had the spotlight on it. Many women (and men) stay in toxic relationships because they cannot afford to leave and would have no place to go. In the case of SWALLOW, Hunter has no control of the purse strings. The finances are all handled by her husband and her in-laws and they make sure to let her know that she’ll be nothing without them. They don’t see themselves as doing anything wrong. And, much like a lot of abusers, they don’t realize that their actions are wrong because the people around them and the system itself has never taught them otherwise. In this, I think the director and writer Carlo Mirabella-Davis really captured this type of abuse perfectly.
The usage of pica draws the film into a more realistic body horror realm. While not a super common condition, it happens frequently enough in pregnant women that there are all sorts of methods and ways to get women to stop compulsively eating random objects. The decision to focus on this all-too-real disorder has a variety of benefits to the storyline. It serves to both make the audience squirm as well as to illustrate Hunter’s growing need to re-establish control over something in her life while reconciling with her guilt over her past. Watching how cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi (Cam, It Comes At Night) and Mirabella-Davis worked in tandem to frame the shots of Haley Bennett’s Hunter eating the various objects was nothing short of amazing. It’s breathtakingly blunt in its display, not shying away as some might have made the decision to do. We watch Hunter swallow a variety of objects, including a thumbtack and it is honestly enough to make most people cringe. Even if you aren’t too keen on watching this character study play out, you should definitely stay for the body horror.
For a story that some might consider slow in its pacing, the quality of the performances is something that has to be focused on a bit more intensely. Because, at the heart and core of SWALLOW, it really is a character piece that focuses on Haley Bennett’s Hunter. With all that said, Haley Bennett absolutely kills it. While some might play the role more overtly, Bennett’s subtlety helps craft a character that is vulnerable, childlike, and makes us want to reach through the screen and protect her from everyone around them. And while the performance is subtle, we can easily see through the emotions displayed in both Bennett’s eyes and body language as she reacts to the tightening noose of control around her neck. As her muscles tighten and she becomes more restricted, so too do we sitting in her seats watching the film play out. By the time we reach the film’s end, we are cheering for Hunter. And I think it speaks to the quality of a performance that we can go on this roller coaster with the character and want nothing but the best from her, especially in a film that represents a more subtle kind of emotional and financial abuse.
I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the remaining performances in the film. Austin Stowell’s narcissistic trust fund baby, Richie, is played to frustrating perfection. I’m not going to lie. There were many times throughout the course of the film when I had to pause because I wanted to punch him in the face. This is a testament to how on par he was with the character he is portraying. Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche are memorably disgusting as Hunter’s in-laws, who also mentally abuse her with their own control and belittling passive-aggressive comments. While his appearance was brief, Denis O’Hare knocks out another memorable performance that I don’t feel comfortable discussing more about due to spoilers. Laith Nakli’s Luay is the beacon of hope and freedom for Bennett’s Hunter as he initially tries to do his job, but realizes that the woman’s home life is more like a warzone than he ever could have imagined.
At its core, I think SWALLOW will make people feel a heck of a lot. While each frame is arguably a thing of beauty thanks in part to Arizmendi’s hard work, there’s an ugliness in the film’s subject matter that may strike a chord in a lot of people. The film reads as unabashedly honest in its portrayal of the systemic classist ways that women who marry into or live in an affluent household are expected to maintain themselves. Haley Bennett nails it, no pun intended, in her portrayal of the internalized struggle in finding her own autonomy as her life continues to feel like it doesn’t belong to her. And, while the people in Hunter’s life personally made me want to punch them, I don’t think the film would have had the same impact if they had been written and portrayed differently. These people behave in a way they only know how to because it’s all they’ve known. As such, I feel people should seek out SWALLOW because it is an immensely powerful, subtle film that captures a woman’s struggle to assert control with no other options afforded to her.
SWALLOW will be released in select theaters and Digital and VOD on March 6, 2020.