With a title like Swallow, you hardly expect subtlety. And yet the debut feature from writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis is brimming with stylish, low-key flourishes. The first image is the back of a blonde woman’s perfectly coiffed head, and indeed lead Hunter (The Girl on the Train‘s Haley Bennett) will fuss with her ‘do for much of the film’s run-time, either out of nervousness or because this young woman on the edge is terrified of putting so much as a toe out of line.
She should be on cloud nine. Hunter has just married her dream man, Richie (Austin Stowell, who’s perfected his smug insouciance in the likes of Whiplash, Battle of the Sexes, and TV’s Catch-22) and the happy couple is enjoying a picturesque suburban existence, pure Americana dripping from every corner of their strangely old-school yet still modern and glass-covered new home (the film has a timelessness about it, broken only by the use of iPhones).
Their hilltop retreat is a feast of candy colors that look good enough to eat, all pinks and yellows, greens and blues, but in spite of the high-gloss finish it’s clear something darker is lurking just beneath the surface. Early on, there’s a focus on eating and drinking, and close-ups on mouths in particular. And indeed, it doesn’t take long for Hunter to put something strange in her own mouth. To start with, it’s a small, red marble but soon she’s moving on to thumbtacks and tiny screws.
To complicate matters, she soon falls pregnant, much to the delight of Richie and his overbearing parents whose home, in stark contrast to theirs, is a melange of beige. Hunter is evidently a lonely, troubled young woman with a messed up past she’s still very much trying to escape, and at first it appears the swallowing is an attempt to regain a sense of control. Or maybe it’s a sexual thing (she’s surprisingly dominant in bed, again hinting to her dodgy past)? Mirabella-Davis leaves it tantalizingly unclear.
Swallow is a profoundly odd little movie, to its great credit. There’s a sense perhaps Mirabella-Davis could’ve pushed a bit further in the execution of its central conceit, since the narrative stalls almost to a complete halt once Hunter is discovered (which is fairly early on). However, Bennett is terrific in the lead role, adopting a soft, girlish voice that slips whenever she dares tell the truth (Hunter’s first line is a desperately sad question; “Did you miss me?”). There’s a slight air of Jennifer Lawrence about her, but Bennett is a stronger actor, communicating a whole plethora of emotions by barely moving a muscle.
Hunter is a very sweet young lady but her dark core is unmistakable and Bennett expresses that push-pull eloquently. Watch how she crumples upon being told “This is the best it’s ever going to get” for her, and how she subsequently begs to be allowed back into her own family, just to regain some sense of comfort, even for a moment. Swallow is so relentless in its torture of poor Hunter, and Bennett so skilled in her performance, you’re begging for someone to show some kindness towards her.
Thankfully, there are a couple bright sparks in the form of a kindly nurse put on Hunter patrol after she undergoes surgery for the removal of several tiny instruments from her stomach, and American Horror Story‘s Denis O’Hare, who appears fleetingly but makes an impression in his signature intensely emotive kind of way. Even if Hunter seems weak, even deliberately victimizing herself for a more comfortable existence, it’s hard not to root for her survival. We desperately hope she figures things out.
Swallow is stunningly shot, cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi playing with an intensely bright color palette, from orange cheese puffs chomped while wearing a green dress and perching delicately on a blue couch to the perfect tailoring of Hunter’s fifties housewife style dresses. The film looks so good, in fact, it’s easy to discount how everything kind of fizzles out in the final moments. The wrap-up to Hunter’s story is overly simplified, while the closing shot is profoundly strange. It’s almost like Mirabello-Davis didn’t know what to do with her beyond the central metaphor.
Still, this is a wonderful showcase for Bennett that sticks with its oddness in the face of encroaching normalcy (though her jaw never unhinges like a snake, for those wondering). Her incredibly skilled, impressively controlled and subtly powerful performance papers over some of the cracks here, while the styling and candy-bright color pops ensure Swallow goes down smoothly, even in its tougher moments.
WICKED RATING: 7/10
Director(s): Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Writer(s): Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Stars: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel
Release date: March 6, 2020 (select theaters and VOD)
Studio/Production Company: IFC Films
Run Time: 94 minutes