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Movie review: 'Swallow' a thrilling, disturbing psych-horror feature

Tribune News Service logo Tribune News Service 3/18/2020 By Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service
a close up of a girl: Official movie poster for IFC films "Swallow." © IFC/IFC films/TNS Official movie poster for IFC films "Swallow."

Consider the marble. Consider the thumbtack. Consider the battery. Writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis asks the audience to consider the shape, form and texture of these items. Their weight, even their taste. Each of the objects, and more, are ingested by Hunter (Haley Bennett, also one of the film’s executive producers), the troubled housewife at the center of his striking psych-horror feature debut, “Swallow.”

The premise of “Swallow” is disturbing enough for a viewer to assume, that’s it, that’s the movie. That’s merely the half of it. The twists and turns “Swallow” takes are surprising, and eventually deeply satisfying, riding on a riveting lead performance by Haley Bennett that soars into unexpected territory. Directed with assured confidence, it’s shocking to consider this is Mirabella-Davis’ first feature, and realize that a film which so directly tackles the messiness of gender expectations is directed by a man.

In interviews, Mirabella-Davis has revealed the ways in which he has personally grappled with notions of gender, and the restrictions therein, both with his family members and himself. The sensitivity and understanding comes through in this empathetic portrait of a beautiful woman trapped in a beautiful prison, where her only way out is in.

Hunter seems to have it all: a marriage to the handsome only son of an unspeakably wealthy family, a lakeside midcentury modern mansion. Her days are spent vacuuming in full skirts and kitten heels, playing Candy Crush and carefully plating her husband’s dinner, hoping for a crumb of validation. When she becomes pregnant, she’s suddenly the family’s prized possession, but the passive aggressions continue. One day, she stops to consider the marble, the thumbtack, the battery, and it’s all downhill from there. Or is it?

Despite the perfectly designed Stepford exterior, Hunter’s interior roils, not just with hardware that cohabitates with new life, but with generational trauma that’s not so much peeled away but ripped from her, inside out. As her affliction, which doctors diagnose as pica, shreds her marriage, her husband and in-laws clamp down their control even tighter, and Hunter’s compulsion grows stronger.

Bennett’s masterful performance is utterly mesmerizing in its sheer physicality. Her cheeks seemingly flush on command, and although she’s often hypnotically still and poised, it’s her rapid, spontaneous bursts of movement that keep us on the edge of our seats, whether she’s diving for a tack or a underneath a bed, or writhing in restrained, ecstatic agony.

Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi brings a cool, clean and highly stylized aesthetic, lit with the abundant natural light. Framed within this oppressive luxury, Hunter, with her blonde bob, quiet voice and anachronistic wardrobe, makes for the perfect accessory or pet; trapped behind glass, invisible walls hold her hostage. In this light, her compulsion to swallow makes sense as a small, secret act of bodily autonomy, which Mirabella-Davis delicately, boldly juxtaposes and underlines in the film’s denouement.

There’s a thrill of discovery watching “Swallow,” which slowly reveals itself to be so much more than just a study of a bored housewife suffering silently with a hysterical compulsion. It is a remarkably rebellious film, filled with a kind of sly, anarchic energy from which one wants to greedily drink as it cracks through, and pours from, its hard, candy-colored shell.



4 stars

Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche.

Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis.

Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes.

Rated R for language, some sexuality and disturbing behavior.

Available for rent on Amazon, Google Play and Vudu.


©2020 Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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