Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Writer: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, David Rasche, Elizabeth Marvel
Cinematographer: Katelin Arizmendi
Editor: Joe Murphy
Streaming on: Mubi
Swallow begins with a series of images, any of which taken separately might be found in a glossy catalogue advertising domestic bliss, but put together reveal a palpable sense of boredom. American housewife Hunter (Haley Bennett) drinks her morning coffee on the balcony of her new lakeview home, cleans her pool, unpacks cartons of belongings, twirls aimlessly as it grows dark outside.
The loneliness only becomes more acute in the coming days. Hunter is frequently alone, cooking the kind of well-balanced meals only those with a lot of time at their disposal can, and playing Candy Crush. She springs to the door to greet her husband (Austin Stowell) the second he’s home from work and looks at him expectantly while they eat, waiting for him to comment on her cooking or to say something, anything while he busies himself with work emails. Surrounded by material comforts, what Hunter longs for is human connection.
Who can she really have a conversation with? It’s not her husband, who’s affable when he wants to be, but doesn’t really listen. It isn’t her father-in-law (David Rasche), who brusquely interrupts her personal anecdote to discuss business at the dinner table, leaving her awash in shame. Neither is it her mother-in-law (Elizabeth Marvel), whose overtures of friendship don’t do enough to disguise her insinuations that Hunter is a gold digger. The steady isolation leaves the already soft-spoken woman with less and less of a voice. Her pregnancy accompanies the realization that she’ll soon become a piece of furniture herself, a silent incubator for the family’s next heir.
So she swallows a marble.
It’s a small act of defiance, the thrill of having done something unexpected in her otherwise-placid life enveloping her in a warm glow. As her Pica (the compulsion to ingest non-food items) gets out of hand, it simultaneously becomes the very thing that gives her some semblance of control. In this gilded cage of a house, paid for her by her husband’s wealthy parents, her steadily growing collection of swallowed knicknacks becomes the only thing she really owns.
The camera, which tracked Hunter’s daily routine languidly, underlining the empty vastness of her hours, now frames her in tight close-ups as she ingests increasingly dangerous objects. Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis doesn’t dwell on the body-horror aspect of this situation, using a few well-placed shots to let viewers’ imagination fill in the gaps. When Hunter tries to swallow a thumbtack, it takes two tries, leaves blood on her tongue, and then on the toilet seat when it exits the next day. It’s only natural to think about the internal carnage it caused in between and wince.
The film moves forward by attempting to answer the why of Hunter’s behaviour, despite creating a cocktail of circumstances that set it up perfectly. It excavates her psyche to reveal that despite her obsession with consuming household objects, there’s something inside she’s trying to purge. A series of verbose situations deflate some of the narrative tension but what keeps Swallow riveting is a fantastic performance by Bennett, whose doll-like manicured facade slips just often enough to reveal the brewing anxieties beneath.
By the end, the film is many things — a portrait of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown who instead decides to break out, a commentary on stifling gender roles and body dysphoria, an exploration of inherited trauma. Its success at capturing each of these themes varies, but what Mirabella-Davis’ audacious, uncomfortable and original debut feature does is offer enough food for thought.