The other half of my Quarantine Double Feature is writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ first narrative feature, Swallow. Swallow follows a different kind of isolation from Vivarium, although both explore the existential crisis that can come with marriage and domesticity. Swallow explores its concepts in a more narratively coherent and grounded way, despite this film basically falling under the genre umbrella of ‘body horror.’ But wait – stay with me – it’s a lot more interesting than that.
Hunter (Haley Bennett) is a newly pregnant housewife married to Richie (Austin Stowell), a good-looking and charming man with money. However, married life isn’t all Hunter had hoped, and she finds herself sinking into deep and frequent bouts of depression. One day, she decides to ‘do something unexpected,’ and she puts a marble in her mouth and swallows it. She soon begins to ingest increasingly dangerous objects, presumably because of the thrill that comes from that, and the situation progressively worsens.
Haley Bennett worked a lot in 2016-2017. Between her supporting roles in films like The Girl on the Train and The Magnificent Seven, I was partly convinced we were looking at Hollywood’s next A-list actress. She seemed to possess a quality that borrowed from other greats of this generation but also seemed entirely her own. And then she went away for a few years. I’m glad she did whatever she needed to do in that time because her performance in Swallow is one for the ages. She creates such a dynamic, rich character in Hunter, that even as you watch her destroy her life, you understand the decisions she makes and what brings her to that.
Swallow is an empathetic and impeccably drawn character study and it steadfastly avoids the trappings of the body horror genre in which it falls. This is a film that cares more about exploring the underlying trauma behind its character’s decisions and not about exploiting the darkness behind them. This is a story about a damaged woman finding a way to get the help she needs instead of reveling in her misery. This is a premise that could be handled so tactlessly and carelessly that is observed with the precision of an Oscar-bait character drama, and that sets it apart from so many films like it.
Austin Stowell as Richie, the husband, is also quite good. He never seems like a truly bad guy initially, but the subtle ways in which he doesn’t seem to recognize what’s truly going on with Hunter say a lot about how she ends up where she does. Elizabeth Marvel as her less than sympathetic mother-in-law is also a highlight. And Denis O’Hare pops up later on for one of the film’s best moments, and the less I tell you about that, the better.
Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi finds a way to tell the story of Hunter’s isolation and her true hopelessness in a way that gives the viewer a way in and a reason to truly care about her. Yes, the house is gorgeous. Lots of glass and stone, it’s the kind of house usually inhabited by the villain. However, you begin to realize how much all of that empty space echoes the empty space inside of Hunter. She’s about to become a mother and she’s more terrified than she’s ever been. The prospect of becoming a parent doesn’t make her feel fulfilled, it makes her feel more alone than ever, and that is illustrated very well by the film’s more subtle creative choices.
In the end, I wouldn’t even call Swallow a horror film. There’s lots of psychological tension, but there are no jump scares. There are intrigue and dread, but not in the traditional sense. It’s an uncomfortable and atmospheric psychological drama that delivers on all its promises. More people should be talking about Haley Bennett’s masterclass performance, and then they should never stop talking about it. Swallow is a bleak and truly intelligent character study that succeeds on just about every level.