[Review] 'Swallow': A Haunting Character Study of a Powerless Woman
Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ feature-length debut Swallow opens with a shot of the back of star Haley Bennett’s perfectly coiffed head. With symmetrically balanced bangs and not a strand of hair out of place, Hunter (played by Bennett in a powerhouse of a performance) looks like she jumped off the pages of a 1950s catalog, a picture-perfect housewife that cleans, cooks and cares for her husband. As we come to discover throughout the course of the film, she is anything but that.
Hunter carries a deep, dark secret; one that she goes to great lengths in order to hide from her distant and work-obsessed husband Richie (Austin Stowell) and his overbearing parents (Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche). Every day, after Richie leaves for work, she swallows inanimate objects. Starting with a marble and gradually increasing in both size and sharpness, her habit – later revealed to be a psychological disorder known as pica - culminates in an emergency procedure during a routine check-up that brings her secret out into the open, forcing her husband and in-laws to react and forcibly take control over her life.
Fresh off of what should’ve been a star-making turn in 2016’s The Girl on the Train, Bennett delivers a masterful performance as Hunter, bringing complexity and a sharp intensity to a role that could’ve easily played off as cartoonish in a less capable actress’ hands. Throughout the course of the film, Bennett injects enough vulnerability and nuance in her performance to show the cracks in Hunter’s demeanor from the very start, illustrating that there has been something very wrong long before her illness developed.
In order to chart Hunter’s arc from complacent trophy wife to assertive and determined young woman, Bennett also adopts a soft, meek “baby voice” that drops in pitch and increases in confidence and urgency as both the film and Hunter’s narrative progress. A risky move but one that ultimately pays off in demonstrating Hunter’s tough yet cathartic emotional journey that culminates with her regaining control over her own life and body.
Elsewhere, Stowell and Marvel tackle their roles with a disquieting subtlety that implies, if not outright states, that both are also victims of the patriarchal rules that Hunter forces herself to abide with. In an almost sweet scene that shows Katherine opening up to Hunter about her dreams of becoming an actress, one of the very few that show them bonding as daughter and mother-in-law, Marvel displays shades of longing and regret that are absent from the rest of her controlled, apathetic performance.
Stowell isn’t given much to work with, at first seeming like a one-note stereotype, but with perfectly timed and executed cuts from speeches delivered and decisions made by Richie’s controlling father – who he has to thank for his high-ranking job and picturesque new house – to knowing, dejected glances from Stowell, there’s clearly much more simmering underneath the surface.
Laith Nakli brings some much-needed comedic relief as Luay, a Syrian nurse hired by Richie’s family in order to look after Hunter and keep a close watch on her. Tinged with deadpan humor and an earnest straightforwardness, his performance is a delight to watch and a welcome break from the surrounding bleakness.
While Swallow centers around a very specific and timely subject matter, Mirabella-Davis portrays it in such a universal tone that anyone who has felt the pressure to fit in or conform can relate to. “This is the best it is ever going to get,” says an aggravated Richie to Hunter after she expresses the desire for a better life - one that she can live out on her own terms. And he may be right, but is a comfortable, lavish lifestyle worth sacrificing your own goals, dreams, and sense of autonomy for?
It is a question that Hunter grapples with from the very start of the film, and as her search for identity and agency in her own life develops, it starts to mirror the experiences many of the disenfranchised face on a daily basis. An engaging and relatable story, Swallow has picked up 22 awards so far on the festival circuit - including an award for Best Actress at the Tribeca Film Festival; a credit to Mirabella-Davis, who approaches Hunter's story with so much humanity and empathy, a route that other directors may have forgone in favor of shock factor and body horror, one that would have been much easier to embark on, especially taking into consideration the film’s subject matter.
Much like the objects swallowed by its leading lady throughout its runtime, Swallow is a difficult film to digest at first, with a coldness to it that begins to melt as we start to see underneath Hunter’s carefully constructed surface, as well as picture-perfect cinematography courtesy of Katelin Arizmendi and camera techniques that are almost surgical in their precision. But, once you start to get invested, you will find that Swallow is a movie that is tough to get rid of, lingering in the brain and haunting viewers far after the credits roll.