Film Review – Swallow
In Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow (2020), a young housewife and soon to be mother Hunter (Haley Bennett) develops an insatiable urge to consume non-food items. Marbles, batteries, and little pieces of metal all take the journey down her digestive tract. Some of the things Hunter swallows can cause serious internal damage, such as thumb tacks and clothing pins. These sequences, while not overly graphic on a visual level, left me squeamish just imaging what her insides are going through taking in sharp objects. It makes one wonder why Hunter feels compelled to do this, even if it makes her go through serious pain.
To my surprise, this condition is a real-life disorder called Pica. A quick internet search reveals that Pica is a psychological disorder most commonly seen in pregnant women, small children, and persons with developmental disabilities. To add a bit of real-world context: my wife (who is a nurse and was recently pregnant) luckily never had these urges but confirmed that Pica is a real thing. It’s interesting to think that a person – who has a life growing inside of them – would develop an uncontrollable compulsion that could very well risk their wellbeing.
But Mirabella-Davis (who writes and directs) is much smarter than to simply have his main character eat everything in sight. There is an underlying subtext here, one that touches upon Hunter’s life and her desire to break free of the social constraints that dictate how she should look and act. She’s married to Richie (Austin Stowell), and lives in a luxurious home that looks like it came straight out of a magazine. But her life of comfort masks deeper issues. Because she is financially dependent on Richie, she is handcuffed by his (and his family’s) every whim. She wears clothes as though she were a 1950s housewife, takes the brunt of her mother in law’s (Elizabeth Marvel) condescending remarks about the length of her hair and education, and is constantly spoken at instead of spoken with. When she tries to bring up her concerns with Richie, he brushes her off like a nuisance. Even her pregnancy feels more like the result of Richie’s intricately planned self-image than a product of their love.
Hunter’s Pica disorder is seen in a different light when compared to the rest of her life. In a place where she has no control, Hunter starts to eat whatever she can get her hands on as a way to gain power over her own body. It’s a back and forth scenario: we root for Hunter to gain agency for herself but cringe every time she tries to force another item down her throat. The narrative soon becomes a battle of wills, with Richie’s family increasingly trying to exert their influence on Hunter as she begins to find the inner strength to stand up to them. Even when the family hires a live-in nurse (who’s really more of a watchdog) to “take care” of Hunter, she gradually finds more ways to be her own person.
Mirabella-Davis’ direction and Katelin Arizmendi’s cinematography puts us into Hunter’s mindset. While her home is spacious with floor to ceiling windows, along with a wide terrace overlooking trees and a river, the tone is one of mounting claustrophobia. The camera often slowly pulls into closeup of ice cubes, bits of dirt, and clothing pins the same way it does for regular shots of meals, highlighting the idea that Heather’s body reacts to both in the same way. But it’s Haley Bennett’s performance that sells it. With keen understatement, she expresses her condition without ever going to extremes. When her body negatively reacts to what she has eaten, her contortions and yelps of pain is so convincing that we almost feel the anguish she’s going through. It’s an unusual challenge for an actor to endure such physical torment as a means to gain strength, but Bennett pulls it off very well.
Indications are made that Hunter’s past has much to do with her diagnosis. Specifically, a very dark and troubling event acts as a haunting element to her psychology. This is the one area that doesn’t quite work. Instead of leaving the question of her impulses up in the air for interpretation, the narrative tries to shoehorn in an explanation. An encounter in the second half attempts to round out her personality and give validation for her independence. The problem is that this scene, while acted well, has a muddied effect because of whom the person is and their direct relationship with Hunter. It’s hard to buy that this person has to be the one to give her substantiation. Instead of taking it for herself without anyone’s help, she seeks this person out and “forces” it out of them. I understand what its purpose was, I just don’t think the scene played out as effectively as it was meant to.
Swallow is listed as a horror film, but it isn’t frightening in terms of jump scares. The terror lies within a character who has been mentally subjugated by those closest to her, so much so that she has to rely on eating inedible objects to feel free. It’s a sad and terrible position to be in, but Mirabella-Davis, Bennett, and the rest of the production did such a good job putting the story on screen that we can’t help but admire the artistry on display.