Swallow (Movie Review)

How much have you had to bite back to fake a smile? In the genre-bending, feminist flick Swallow, one young woman is forced to fight for her happiness. IFC Films delivers the masterful Psychological Thriller to select theaters, as well as Digital and VOD, on Friday, March 6th, 2020.

Swallow still.

Swallow stars Haley Bennett (The Girl on the Train 2018, The Magnificent Seven 2018) and Austin Stowell (Bridge of Spies 2015, Fantasy Island 2020) as a young couple expecting their first child. Sweet-spoken Hunter (Bennett), with her perfect hair and flawless makeup, is the picture-perfect doting fiancée to handsome and well-off Richie (Stowell), the youngest managing director in the history of his father’s company. So life is flawless, right?

Not so much. First, there’s Richie’s over-involved parents Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel: True Grit 2010, Manifest series) and Michael (David Rasche: United 93 2006, Veep series), who ask many questions and listen to none of the answers. Further adding to the complicated dynamic between the expectant couple are a multitude of other issues—including Hunter’s unspoken past—which are in no way helped by an onset of Pica (eating strange things) in pregnant Hunter.

But as the beautiful blonde begins to swallow increasingly dangerous and bizarre items, risking the health of herself and her fetus, those around her fail to provide her with loving support. Richie, worried solely about his—emphasis on “his”—child, gives her an ultimatum via his father. So, what is an anxious young woman to do when she’s lost all control of herself and her body?

Clocking in at 95 minutes, Swallow is a brilliant feature-length debut for Writer-Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis (Knife Point short 2009, The Swell Season documentary 2011). A masterful psychological exploration, the film also features the acting talents of Denis O’Hare (Garden State 2004, Dallas Buyers Club 2013), Laith Nakli (The Long Road Home mini-series, 12 Strong 2018), Maya Days (Damages series, A Luv Tale: The Series mini-series), Babak Tafti (New Amsterdam series, Succession series), Nicole Kang (You series, Batwoman series), and more.

Swallow still.

Swallow bends genres to present a tale that is more feminist commentary than anything. A languid burn, heavy with psychological elements and metaphor, this is a film that delves into issues of control—particularly those pertaining to young women living in our patriarchal society. The ironically-named Hunter is a woman who has lacked control in every step of her personal evolution, shunned for her past, and, often times, simply ignored in the present—because she is a woman, and should be seen and not heard. Any concerns expressed for her condition are phrased in such a way as to show that those asking them have a personal agenda (i.e. Richie is worried about “his baby,” and not her health).

As the tale develops, we witness a woman who has been marginalized on every level: her past has been white-washed, her former work experience has been discounted, her personal stories are ignored, and her husband ignores her during meals in favor of staring at his cell phone. He’s even emotionally disconnected during sex—until he’s denied an orgasm. The fact that Hunter develops a severe case of Pica is no great shock: she is merely trying to recover some small scrap of control in a life that is being lived for everyone else. Indeed, it is wholly telling that the only character who appears to understand Hunter is Syrian refugee Luay (Nakli).

Mirabella-Davis magnificently crafts his sobering tale through a lush aesthetic that features mid-century modern architecture, striking and evocative visuals thanks to the expert cinematography of Katelin Arizmendi (It Comes At Night 2017, Cam 2018)—including breathtaking views of the Hudson Valley—and so much more. However, despite all of its commanding visuals and its multi-layered screenplay, Swallow is a tale that speaks more with the things that go unsaid rather than anything that is spelled out for its audience.

It does this by suffusing its clever visuals and adroit metaphors into a tale that is presented with a nuanced excellence by the ensemble cast. In the lead, there is absolutely no surprise why Bennett (Hunter) has already taken home awards for her performance here. With a sweet voice and need to please, Bennett portrays a woman who is clearly living for those around her instead of herself. She speaks and the men talk right over her, people continuously correct her or urge her to change to meet their standards, etc. This paves the way for odd behavior: when she is neglected, she swallows a marble; when she is reminded that she is nothing without Richie, she swallows a pin; when men ask inappropriate things, she swallows a battery. While she continually attempts to fake happiness by swallowing her objections, all of her body language shows that Hunter is miserable—but someone would have to truly care about her to notice.

Swallow still.

Hunter’s sheer motivation for making a change is to “make Richie happy.” In the role of said baby daddy, Stowell delivers an exceptional performance that is infuriating in its silent disregard. Neglectful, disconnected, self-absorbed, and utterly spineless, Stowell’s character is abusive in the things he does not do or say. He views Hunter’s body as an incubator for “his” child, and he ignores her struggles because she’s little more than “his” spoiled housewife—someone to look pretty when his friends are around, cook fancy meals, clean the house, and keep quiet until spoken to (and then ignored anyway).

Even though Hunter is just a housewife going through the motions of her day to day life, there’s an ominous quality—certainly aided by the eclectic score by Nathan Halpern (The Rider 2017, Minding the Gap documentary 2018)—to her story; an echo of the struggle that many women face in their daily lives amid a patriarchal society. As opposing forces, Bennett and Stowell anchor an exceptional display of an interpersonal dynamic that is all too often present in our society. Despite the film having a solid ending, the struggle between the Hunters and Richies of the world is still ongoing.

Consider that happiness is a battle for control and balance, a good relationship a yin and yang. At its simplest level, Swallow is a reminder that no one should have to surrender their own happiness in order to be viewed as worthy of love. Intelligently nuanced, thick with metaphor, and visually lush, the masterful cast and crew have inspired Cryptic Rock to give Swallow 5 of 5 stars.

IFC Films

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