Women tend to handle the lion’s share of the emotional labor in even the most progressive households. The Swerve, writer-director Dean Kapsalis’ stunning debut feature, posits the idea that being consistently ignored and unappreciated for the work she does for her family could drive an otherwise stable wife and mother round the bend. The very first image onscreen is of Azura Skye’s Holly, speeding through the night, classical music blaring in her ears, and bloodied knuckles gripping the steering wheel. The titular swerve, meanwhile, could be taken as emotional, physical, vehicular, or all of the above.
At home, Holly is surrounded by selfish, uncaring men. Her husband and two teenage sons expect her to do everything for them and Holly is, understandably, struggling to juggle all of her commitments as a result. She drops the boys off at school with them barely even offering a goodbye, never mind a thank you. She supports her husband as he frets over a promotion and he almost seems to take offense in response. She’s a schoolteacher, a good one it seems like, in charge of twenty odd students, one of whom has taken an inappropriate shine to her. Holly is trying desperately to keep everything under control but nobody is helping her and, although she routinely takes medication (presumably antidepressants, though it’s never made explicitly clear), the dark clouds continue to roll in.
Even before anything too drastic happens to her, Holly’s plight will speak to a lot of women on a very deep, emotional level. Her sad, lonely supermarket stroll is painfully evocative and the best visual representation of depression this side of You Were Never Really Here. However, while Lynn Ramsay’s film trafficked in bloody retribution and eventually offered its tortured protagonist something resembling a happy ending, Kapsalis’ is more insidious, I would argue because the focus is on a female character and typically women aren’t afforded the same level of understanding – even in movies. The whole theme of this one could reasonably be summed up as “being a mom is a thankless job.” Ultimately, in fact, it’s Holly’s attentive, loving treatment of her family, often at her own expense, that will be her undoing.
The Swerve gets dark, darker than most viewers will be expecting given the reliance on everyday annoyances. A plaintive, string-heavy score emphasizes Holly’s listlessness, how she feels like a ghost in her own life, as though she’s floating by without anybody fully acknowledging her presence. When a mouse invades her home, the metaphor could be interpreted as Holly seeing herself in this creature, which she obsesses over killing, or that it represents one tiny thing in her life that she can actually control. There’s even some suggestion that only she can see the mouse, which plays into the film’s constant see-saw between whether Holly is actually losing her mind or simply being gaslighted by those around her into believing she’s the issue when really they are. Even her parents seem completely unaware of their daughter’s personal crisis.
As Holly, Skye is painfully committed. She was recently seen playing a scumbag criminal in Riverdale, so the softness of her performance here is achingly captivating. With 12 Hour Shift set to drop in early October, this is the second horror/thriller in as many weeks to feature a woman of a certain age in the leading role. And, although Holly has nothing much in common with the ruthless organ thief at the center of Brea Grant’s stellar movie, she has a similar underlying darkness that only comes out when others push her over the edge. In Holly’s case, most of the pushing is done by her wayward sister Claudia (played by The Last Exorcism breakout Ashley Bell), who picks at her for having underlying issues with food and even, it’s strongly hinted, a touch of OCD. Their testy interactions are charged with bad blood that’s been built up over decades and both actresses play their side of the argument to perfection.
The Swerve doesn’t offer any easy answers, much to Kapsalis’ credit. It’s a compelling, richly detailed study of one, ordinary woman’s quiet descent into (maybe) insanity that remains completely in her corner even when everything begins to fall apart and she begins acting out. Beautifully photographed and carefully assembled, it’s an emotionally resonant experience with a heart-breaking payoff that’s fully sold by Skye’s vanity-free performance. A must-watch that will stick with you long after the credits roll.
WICKED RATING: 8/10
Director(s): Dean Kapsalis
Writer(s): Dean Kapsalis
Stars: Azura Skye, Ashley Bell, Bryce Pinkham, Zach Rand
Release date: September 22, 2020 (VOD and Digital)
Studio/Production Company: Spark Chamber
Run Time: 95 minutes