Actress Haley Bennett gets a perfect opportunity to showcase her acting talents in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s feature directorial debut, “Swallow”. Bennett plays a layered dramatic role that should elevate her into more leading and essential performances: as a conflicted, vulnerable woman who yearns to liberate herself from economic traps and a controlling marriage. Unfortunately, Davis’s first-rate performance is enclosed in a immensely uneven film, whose first half is an engrossing dissection of marital alienation, but the second dissolves into disjointed melodrama with its third act taking the aspect of a domestic drama that uses stalking, revenge, and ultimately redemption in its lukewarm climax. Despite some flaws, “Swallow” is still a haunting and discomforting dramatic horror-thriller worth recommending for its craftsmanship and ambiguous themes.
A timid trophy wife, Hunter (Haley Bennett) has recently married Richie (Austin Stowell), a child to a wealthy businessman Michael (David Rasche) and his aristocratic wife Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel). Her in-laws don’t show her much respect, however, they do whatever they can to still stand by Richie’s happiness and purchase the couple an isolated, luxurious estate that mirrors the Park families home in “Parasite”. The new lifestyle allows Richie to manipulate and pressure Hunter to be a housewife that supports his every need.
After getting pregnant, Hunter finds herself rebelling against her constraints and finds herself developing a compulsion of swallowing very dangerous objects that consist of marbles, paper clips, push pins, and even triple a batteries to name a few. This leads her to the hospital that could have put her life, health and pregnancy into jeopardy. Richie and his parents do not take to her instinctual urges, they attempt to control and correct her abnormal behavior even more with hostility over understanding, compassion, or empathy. Hunter’s itches to swallow objects end up becoming deeper and more psychological that reveal her mysterious past that she keeps secret from Richie and his family.
As writer, Mirabella-Davis is obviously influenced by European art-house directors from the 1960s, such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse”, Luis Bunuel’s “Belle de Jour”, Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby”, and Robert Bresson’s “A Gentle Woman”, all of which were explorations of lonely housewives who become victims of their cold bourgeois environments and toxic relationships that suppressed their true necessities and desires. And indeed, in the first half of the film, we observe the solitary habits of Hunter being a housewife: cooking dinner, doing laundry, cleaning, and contemplating her thoughts in an isolated household. Hunter seems to have no family, no friends, and is very remote with her lifestyle–some insights are developed later in the movie that provide the audiences about her unsettling birth into the world.
It doesn’t take long to realize that Hunter is swallowing objects to gain her own self-control, because for once she feels like she is control of something. Even if that means potentially harming her marriage and putting her own body and health at risk. The true reasoning of her swallowing objects allows the audience to ponder if she is attempting to commit suicide? Is she trying to abort her unborn child? It is clear that Hunter is a prop or possession to her husband’s satisfaction, her self-destructive actions are a result of her trying to please everyone else in her life. Yet, while she is on this dangerous journey she begins to open-up and comes to terms with her own repressions and traumas. What is successful about the film is just how wickedly funny it can be as well, Mirabella-Davis generates dark comedic laughter with the material, while also merging it as a body-horror style of movie that also echoes the horror methods of David Cronenberg.
The film changes major gears when, in an element during the third act Mirabella-Davis takes a more domestic-drama approach of Hunter pondering to distant herself from her husband as she attempts to confront her past. During the third act, Hunter’s uncontrollable tension and anger breaks out after she confronts Erwin (Denis O’Hare), a mysterious man who holds the secrets to Hunter’s roots and patrimony.
“Swallow” is an impressive visual and technical feat as well, even with its budgetary limitations. It exhibits rich craftsmanship and meticulous detail that echoes the visual sensibilities to “Safe”, Todd Haynes’s 1995 masterpiece that was also about a disconnected housewife. Superbly crafted, cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi and production designer Erin Magill have created a sterile, often chilling atmosphere that captures the displacement of Hunter’s world. The meticulous detail with the balanced, pitch-perfect framing also echoes the work of David Fincher and even Mark Romanek’s 2002 thriller “One Hour Photo”– in which the aesthetics and tones heighten Hunter’s complacent and oppressive world. “Swallow” is an impressive feature debut whose direction looks almost like the work of a seasoned and experienced director, placing itself as a highlight of smaller indie released films to be released recently.
However, in his first attempt, novice filmmaker Mirabella-Davis works better as a director than writer, as, ultimately, the third-act comes off jarring and almost inconsistent with the rest of the material. It seems at odds with the genre building tropes that was pulled off so brilliantly during its first hour, eventually the tonal shifts becomes a product of a conflicted filmmaker that is not in true command of his material that never fills fully fleshed-out or rendered in what it’s trying to fully accomplish. Despite these few shortcomings, “Swallow” is an impressive, unforgettable film filled with rich and paradoxical ideas about liberating oneself from status and controlling forces.