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This article also appears in our March 20 print issue under the headline “Recipe for Disaster.”
She stares at the marble with such care. The object does not have a lot of sentimental value, but its pristine condition suggests that at least one part of her life will be hers, and only hers. Her plan is not to start a marble collection. She puts it in her mouth, then gulps it down. Swallow, the new film from director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, is an attempt to understand this compulsion. It can be explained through a real psychological disorder—commonly referred to as “pica”—except her reasons are more complicated than that. The film starts as a clinical depiction of body horror, only to become something more tender and specific.
Haley Bennett plays Hunter, a beautiful young woman who is unaccustomed to her new life. She lives with her husband, Richie (Austin Stowell), in a modern house overlooking the water. She does not come from money, and Richie is affluent thanks to his position in his family’s company. Hunter’s only obligation is minding the house. Her mother-in-law (Elizabeth Marvel) treats her like something between a pet and an employee, and the subtext to this cold arrangement is about how Hunter must provide the family a child.
Between tense family dinners and long days with little to do, Hunter develops a curious hobby. She swallows things, and saves them when they come out the other end. At first, it’s just a marble, but then she craves bigger and more dangerous objects. Even when she learns she is pregnant, her compulsion cannot stop.
The look of Swallow is crucial to its effect. Mirabella-Davis and cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi frame Hunter in medium shot, keeping the camera steady in the sterile interiors where she finds herself. She looks like she is on display at a zoo, with her new family as her keepers. The sections where Hunter swallows objects are deliberately uncomfortable. The close-ups and intentional editing are an insight into her thought process, plus there is palpable terror when she eats something pointy like a thumbtack. Hardened horror fans may recoil at all this because Mirabella-Davis presents it in such a matter-of-fact, realistic way. That sense of anticipation and anxiety, however, does not lead to gore or on-screen bodily fluids. We experience horror through impeccable sound design, and by worrying for her safety.
Pica is a symptom for what afflicts Hunter, not the cause. As the film continues, we learn more details about her personal life and how she came to know Richie. The film is saddest when Hunter learns that her new family has little interest in her wellness, beyond how it makes them look. Parts of the film recall Mad Men in how it depicts the prison of domestic life, and not just because Bennett resembles January Jones, who played Betty Draper. Like Betty, Hunter is withdrawn and fiercely angry, to the point that she can shock those who see her as demure. Bennett ably captures all these emotions, including an intense sequence where she abandons her home.
By depicting the interiority of someone with extreme privilege, it unintentionally becomes a good film for this strange, anxiety-inducing, isolating moment in our lives. Hunter has no friends, hardly sees anyone, and can barely grasp what her future holds. Her way of asserting control is unusual, and yet it is recognizably human.
Swallow is available to rent and stream on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Vudu.
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