Cinephilia

Review: Swallow

Believe it or not, there is a mini-genre of independent films that center around women eating…weird shit. As riveting as it is disturbing, 2016’s Raw centers on sisters at a veterinary school who acquire a taste for human flesh after a very intense hazing ritual. After a respectable film festival run, Are We Not Cats, a sweetly weird romance about a woman with an obsession with eating hair, hit streaming channels in 2018.

The debut feature film from writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, Swallow starts in a place of domestic bliss, a well-to-do, beautiful young couple living a life of privilege as he (Richie Conrad, played by Austin Stowell) heads off to work at his father’s office each day and she (Hunter, played by Haley Bennett) stays home like some 1950s throwback housewife, done up to keep house and make dinner. Before long, Hunter discovers she’s pregnant and Richie wastes no time in telling his parents (David Rasche and Elizabeth Marvel) the exciting news. It’s quickly evident just how little control Hunter has over her life, making it a believable narrative leap when she deliberately (and somewhat delightedly) pops a glass marble into her mouth and swallows it. As life goes on around her, Hunter practically thrills at the rush of “processing” the marble through her system and recovering it on the other side. It’s a small rebellion for a woman whose life is less and less her own, especially now that she’s carrying the next generation of Conrads.

Like any addict, Hunter soon has to escalate her indulgences in order to get the same rush, and just the thought of ingesting the objects she’s eyeing is wince-worthy. But she’s clearly not OK, so in they go. And remember: she’s pregnant this whole time. The objects do enough internal damage that Richie finds out about her self-harming obsession and, as he’s wont to do, immediately runs to mommy and daddy with the issue. It’s about now that it starts to dawn on an observant viewer that we know an awful lot about Hunter’s life with her husband and in-laws, but we’ve yet to meet anyone from Hunter’s side of the family. It’s the therapist she’s sent to who gets Hunter to finally start sharing more about herself, including a troubling secret about her origins. With all of this established, Mirabella-Davis has more than enough to craft an intriguing narrative about what drives a woman to make harmful, unsettling decisions for her life and that of her child.

Thankfully, he’s not quite done surprising us. As Hunter’s issues intensify, the Conrad’s grip on her only tightens. They loom over her, trying to convince her to self-commit to a live-in mental institution, all but saying in so many words that they just need her around long enough to safely deliver their grandchild. Richie’s support vacillates between an honest effort to understand and entirely non-existent, depending on who’s around at any given moment. It’s hard to know which is more infuriating: his complete lack of empathy or Hunter’s desperate attempts to elicit it. That Bennett can channel a doe-eyed despair as well as she does a steely resolution makes the whole affair all the more chilling. By the time her addiction and its consequences come to a head, Hunter’s every move is cringeworthy—and riveting.

An obsession like Hunter’s is so brutal, so out there that it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone actually engaging in it. At the same time, as we get to know her circumstances—both the ones she’s living in and the ones she’s attempting to heal from—one can almost understand why someone might take such extreme measures to regain some sense of agency. From that perspective, and thanks to Bennett’s impressively vulnerable performance, Mirabella-Davis manages to harness an unlikely but very much deserved sympathy for his heroine. Like Raw and Are We Not Cats before it, Swallow is a weird one, and that’s high praise.

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