Why ‘Swallow’ Is Indie Film’s New Cringe Classic

Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ “Swallow” is the kind of movie you nervously watch through your fingers to block out the imagery … but you still keep on watching.

It’s not a horror movie and, considering the plot, wisely avoids graphic imagery.

Swallow - Official Trailer I HD I IFC Films

Here’s what it’s about: Hunter (Haley Bennett) is married to Richie (Austin Stowell) and feeling insecure about her place in their marriage. While Richie is, like his father (David Rasche), filthy rich, Hunter comes from a lower middle-class background.

Hunter worked in retail prior to meeting her future beau. Hunter’s in-law, and the sprawling, gorgeous home she shares with Richie, make her feel inadequate. The conversations she shares with her in-laws are painful, as Hunter sounds to them and her husband like a small, kept animal.

The announcement that Hunter is pregnant only adds to her misery, as it feels more a strategic move on maintaining her husband’s legacy than a shared joy.

Out of nowhere, Hunter develops a habit of swallowing small, unsafe household items, for the danger involved and the feeling of control it gives her. Tiny, seemingly unobtrusive items like a marble are upgraded for challenges like passing a thumbtack through her system.

This is where watching the film through my fingers comes in.

“Swallow” isn’t an exploitative or glib art movie but a drama about the psychological state of a woman who seemingly has everything but lives an empty life. Everyone around her can barely disguise their condescending attitude.

Helping things considerably is how beautiful the film is. The material is unpleasant, but the film is bathed in visual opulence; this is the movie Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man” could have been had he not filmed an otherwise good-looking movie with an obtrusive blue hue.

No one in the cast is playing this for camp or attempting to satirize their characters. There is no sense of detachment, ironic or otherwise, from any of this.

I appreciate the restraint the director demonstrated in the physical horror, through carefully added sound effects, gut churning close-ups and the reaction of the characters. Bennett is amazing, keeping the audience on her side even when her character is partaking in bizarre behavior.

At times, I was unsure if Hunter was in this marriage as an opportunist or a naïve victim (or both). Bennett’s layered work kept me wondering and utterly fascinated.

A standout in “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Girl on the Train,” Bennett is someone to watch. So is Stowell, a character actor who plays Richie with an unexpected depth that makes his motivations and reliability unclear.

Swallow Excerpt | SGIFF 2019

It’s always fun to see Rasche, former star of the gloriously bonkers, 80’s cult hit TV series, “Sledge Hammer!,” is perfectly cast as Richie’s father. Rasche is well paired by Elisabeth Marvel, another skillful performer, playing Richie’s mother.

Just when it seems like it’s obvious and inevitable where “Swallow” is headed, a wildly unpredictable third act throws narrative expectations out the window.

Mirabella-Davis’ screenplay never loses it ability to unsettle, but I was delighted by the smart manner in which the story develops. I won’t describe his role but character actor MVP Denis O’Hare’s scene with Bennett is a stunner, both for what it doesn’t show and for how raw, direct and uncliched the dialog is.

While it left me feeling drained and unsteady, “Swallow” is a strangely satisfying film overall, a depiction of how a domestic prisoner finds way to escape both her need to be obedient and the unresolved pains of her upbringing.

Making a remarkable directorial debut after a series of short films, Mirabella-Davis has created a work that I may be unable to revisit any time soon, but it has left a mark on me.

More to the point, I will never, ever forget this film.

Three Stars

One Comment

  1. I was with you until you said ‘Standout in the Magnificent Seven’. That movie was terrible and her character was terrible.

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