Body horror takes a uniquely distressing form in writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s narrative feature debut, “Swallow,” a quietly tense thriller about consumption pushed to its extreme. From start to finish, it’s a twisted reflection of a conscientious housewife whose world is dominated by her husband and his family, to the extent that she picks up a shocking habit to cope.
Hunter (Haley Bennett) spends her days within an idyllic house with a spacious balcony that provides her with an incredible overhead view. On the surface, her marriage is a portrait of happiness. It appears that she has everything she could need. Richie (Austin Stowell), her wealthy, well-groomed husband, is the youngest managing director at his firm, and she’s the doting housewife who lives by the needs of her spouse. Hunter’s true feelings begin to emerge when she realizes she’s pregnant. As the pressures continue to mount, Hunter discovers an unexpected form of nourishment — the swallowing of inedible objects.
“Swallow” is, from top to bottom, an unbelievable showcase for Haley Bennett, delivering a performance that makes you squirm, and not only because of the trinkets she consumes. You’re always trying to get a read on Hunter. And Bennett’s layered expressions allow for some sharp observations that she can’t exactly express within her oppressive state of being. She’s able to keep these emotions all to herself, built upon the increasing mountain of swallowed objects. The film rests on her shoulders, and she remarkably does so with an incredible confidence in the material.
Hunter’s stress manifests itself in an eating disorder known as pica, in which a person digests objects not identifiable as food. The film takes baby steps, depicting how Hunter’s obsession, which will grow exponentially dangerous throughout, begins with something as harmless as ice. The framing of this pivotal moment is what makes the origin of her transformation truly special. We’ve all chewed on ice cubes in our drinks every now and then. Waiting in her glass, it crackles like electric currents, drawing her in. Upon placing it in her mouth, the crunch cuts through the table conversation like glass. Richie and his prosperous parents (Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche) stop dead in their tracks as Hunter indulges herself. From there, her instinct compels her to swallow just about anything (and I do mean anything) small she can get her hands on. It’s the only happiness that completely belongs to her.
Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi (“CAM”) imbues “Swallow” with a wonderful, contrasting blend of sterile greys and striking colors. Within the big glass castle, her eye manifests in Hunter, who infuses the home with all areas of sharp blues and blood reds. The camera, unlike Stowell’s Richie, remains at a standstill to explore all of Bennett’s Hunter, to empathize with her. The moment in which she breaks the news about her pregnancy to Richie is really well-executed, as the camera focuses intensely on her face, full of despair, before it shifts to a happier and more palatable tone for his sake. It’s heartbreaking to watch as a part of Hunter crumbles before our eyes.
I was consistently impressed by how “Swallow” frames Hunter’s inner loss of control. Playing the fitted role of loving, submissive housewife is the extent of her individuality. Richie doesn’t directly issue orders that she stay secluded to the house like an outright psychopath. His regulation involves subtle gaslighting, caused by micro transgressions, that indicates he’s the one to live by. Any step of precaution for her sake is less about Richie being a supportive partner, and more salvaging what he believes is his.
It’s appropriate that both Bennett and Stowell are excellent at demonstrating a marriage that, on the surface to others, appears picturesque. As they interact with one another, it becomes increasingly clear that they’re riding the same wavelength on a superficial level. Appearing before Richie is less of a natural reaction, and more of getting into position, a routine she’s been subconsciously accustomed to adhere to.
There is inherent shock at watching Hunter devour increasingly dangerous objects. But this is where “Swallow” becomes much more nuanced than its premise would lead you to believe. Sure, anyone would certainly have a visceral, surface-level reaction of watching someone gulp something sharp like a thumbtack or a hair pin. But the true horror of “Swallow” stems from a deeper part of Hunter’s subconscious, a voice that compels her to do these things as a result of something she’s repressed for far too long. Carlo Mirabella-Davis, also tackling screenwriter duties, remarkably illustrates how her unhealthy obsession is the result of being pushed to such an extreme by the people that occupy her life, none of which she can completely confide in. In times of great stress, swallowing dangerous inedible objects feels like the natural, rational thing to do.
“Swallow” discards the conventional tropes for something more thoughtful towards its protagonist. It’s through this that the true meaning behind Hunter’s actions can be an uncomfortably tough thumbtack to swallow.
“Swallow” is available on on demand and all major digital platforms.
Support our writers by buying us a coffee on Ko-Fi!
Featured image credit: IFC Films
Matt graduated from Keene State College in 2017 with a Bachelor’s in Critical Film Studies. A few of his favorite films include “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Army of Darkness,” “Before Sunrise” and “Certain Women.” Having already contributed to Bloody Disgusting, ELF Magazine and The Simple Cinephile, Matt aspires to expand and continue writing with various outlets. If there’s any chance to talk about horror films and/or Twin Peaks, he’ll very much jump at the opportunity.