Swallow: Reclaiming Control By Any Means Necessary
When your entire life is micromanaged by someone else, especially someone you’re reliant on, someone who has all the external manifestations of power — money, status, physique — how do you regain a semblance of control? How do you make it clear, at least to yourself, that your body and your will are your own? And if the method is one that could cause you harm, is it worth it?
These are the questions posed by writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis in Swallow, to often deeply unsettling effect. Mirabella-Davis’ feature debut focuses on Hunter (Haley Bennett), a young woman with a complicated past. She’s married to Richie (Austin Stowell), a well-to-do WASP with retrograde opinions regarding gender roles in a relationship, and forced to deal with the smothering omnipresence of her in-laws (Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche), who seem to think it’s their place to ensure that Hunter is a “proper” fit for their precious son. Richie and his parents’ authority over her only ramps up in intensity once she becomes pregnant, and so she begins reclaiming autonomy in the only way that makes sense: by swallowing small household objects.
It would be easy to turn a premise like this into one of pure body horror, but Mirabella-Davis and his cast and crew are more interested in Hunter’s psychology than her physiology. Clever signifiers in the early goings set up her meticulously manicured life to be something more akin to a prison — her outfits are suffocatingly monochrome, extravagant food is shot in unappetizing close-up, she’s backgrounded in almost every scene she shares. In conversations, she’s quieter than every other character, to the point where it seems as though her audio is being intentionally mixed down. Bennett is mesmerizing, playing Hunter not so much as a woman who’s been broken, but as one who’s been taught from the beginning that conformity and submissiveness are the sole inroads to feeling wanted. The environment conveyed is so stifling and so upsetting that it feels perfectly earned when Hunter begins to chafe against those lessons by any means necessary.
The film wisely chooses not to alienate or demonize the real disorder (typically known as pica) at the heart of the film, opting to view it as a valid expression of Hunter’s circumstances and instead vilifying those around her who merely view her condition as an unwanted intrusion into their lives. Despite more than one trip to the hospital, it’s always clear that the true danger is at home, with a husband who screams about how your health is impacting his life, how your feelings are ruining his birthday, how your therapist should be letting him sit in. And though the film takes a few narrative left turns on the way to its climax, it (and Bennett) never loses sight of Hunter as a human being, leading to a final set of sequences as cathartic as they are uncomfortable. The film isn’t going to leave you with the warm and fuzzies, but perhaps you’ll have a newfound sense of empathy for those who have to take the small victories of independence wherever they can find them.