Review: Swallow

Year: 2020
Runtime: 95 minutes
Writer/Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Stars: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche

By Mique Watson

Somewhere in upstate New York, Hunter (Haley Bennett) stands on a balcony of a cold, glass house which overlooks a gloomy forest. This is a house with sapphire drapes which match her various knee-length skirts. We are immediately inducted into a world of isolation and familiarity–a world of neatness and artificial perfection. A world which, director Carlo Mirabella-Davis suggests, is one no normal human being could instantly acclimatize themselves to; one so laced with control and implemented order.

Hunter has a perpetually fixed smile of obedience and understanding on her face whenever she’s in the presence of her husband, Richie (Austin Stowell); it’s a smile so forcibly fixed, it has the authenticity of a hundred dollar Prada bag. Hunter, for a long stretch of this film is the perfect embodiment of mute feminine submission; it’s as if she herself understands that she is better seen, not heard. She spends her days mostly idle; decorating her soon-to-be-born infant’s bedroom, making dinner, and playing mindless phone games.

haley swallow 1
Haley Bennett in Swallow (2019) © Anna Kooris

She takes dinner with Richie and his parents (Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche) where it is evident that he is–without a doubt in mind–their controlling, domineering, judgmental son. We learn, over dinner, that the house she and Richie live in was a wedding gift from her in-laws. We also learn that they have virtually no interest in what she has to say–a story she meekly tells gets cut off mid-sentence because the topic was abruptly changed. The feeling that this marriage was something rushed is palpable; more so, the feeling that Hunter, by merely being, is walking on eggshells around these people is gut wrenching.

“This isn’t by any means a Cronenbergian exercise in body-horror, although it does get quite difficult to view at times. The horror of this tale comes from what it implied.”

The time we spend alone with Hunter sees her struggling to maintain the image of the perfect housewife she has clearly worked tirelessly to curate. A tsunami of thoughts and emotions reside in her head, yet her shell is one of polished placidity. For instance, when she and Richie are alone, we do not overtly learn anything about her: what are her politics? Does she have a specific taste in art? Heck, what is her favorite color? All these things remain unasked. One evening, the couple have a discussion over dinner–all she manages to mutter is “I think there’s room for a flower pot out back, near the pool”. She has very little to actually say, but the inflection in her voice and the eager determination, mired by resistance in her eyes, tell us otherwise.

“Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi shoots this picture with warmth; the color palette is as warm and glassy as the red marble she ingests. We are meant to see the world as Hunter does.”

swallow hal
Haley Bennett in Swallow (2019) © Anna Kooris

As she struggles to maintain a sense of self in this situation, she takes it upon herself to do something unexpected: she swallows a marble, later a thumbtack, then a battery. The titular action of swallowing is the coping mechanism used by our heroine to maintain her sense of self in this disturbing, uncomfortable study of trauma, guilt, and coping mechanisms we use to survive the doldrums of contrived perfection.

This isn’t by any means a Cronenbergian exercise in body-horror, although it does get quite difficult to view at times. The horror of this tale comes from what it implied, it comes from the tortured psyche of a woman and how the man who is supposedly in love with her can’t seem to detect it (or perhaps deliberately turns a blind eye to it?).

Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi shoots this picture with warmth; the color palette is as warm and glassy as the red marble she ingests. We are meant to see the world as Hunter does, even though writer/director Mirabella-Davis chooses to shoot Hunter in a very detached way; rendering us mere observers. We aren’t put into Hunter’s shoes–even when we’re alone in a room with her, Mirabella-Davis sits us down in a chair far across from her; we’re constantly tasked to intuit what is happening in her head.

haley swallow
Haley Bennett in Swallow (2019) © Anna Kooris

We are, however, guided by Bennett–she is terrific here; Hunter may not have much to say, but Bennett’s expressive performance lets us in on just enough to infer what her character is feeling. Her performance truly comes alive at around the film’s midpoint when she begins to be more aggressive in her defense of this self-destructive habit… a habit which Richie and his parents eventually discover. This goes just as well as you think it does. Her mute submission is replaced with calculated rage; a rage which has seemingly welled up inside her for as long as she can remember. Without spoiling, all I will say is this: she recalls something from her past to family-hired therapist, she does so with such enthusiastic nonchalance that even this season therapist is rendered uneasy.

“Swallow” takes a sharp turn in its third act, when Hunter chooses to take her addiction with her and confront the source of her deep-seated trauma. A trauma which has morphed into sick guilt–guilt which has clearly festered beneath her controlled facade. A guilt she, perhaps, thought she could cope with by rushing into a relationship of control to ease her chaotic mind. However, one cannot have self-control until they realize that the element of “self” must first be there; both Hunter and Mirabella-Davis know this.

4 stars

 

 

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