Stirring and Evocative, ‘Swallow’ Is a Nail-Biting Takedown of the Patriarchy
Hunter, a newly pregnant housewife, finds herself increasingly compelled to consume dangerous objects. As her husband and his family tighten their control over her life, she must confront the dark secret behind her new obsession.
Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Cast: Hayley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche
Runtime: 94 minutes
Swallow is, in a word, horrifying. The psychological thriller is a provocative takedown of the patriarchy, conjoining its searing message with its focus on pica, a compulsive eating disorder. While its script often misses the mark, the outstanding performances of its lead and strong visual style makes for an emotionally stirring and highly memorable watch.
The film is seen through the eyes of Hunter (Hayley Bennett), a yuppie housewife recently married into a rich family and pregnant with the family heir. While the couple’s financial status allows Hunter to pursue her illustrator dreams at home, she often finds herself unhappy and emotionally isolated from her inconsiderate husband, Richie (Austin Stowell). Her anxieties and desire for control over her own life are further exacerbated by his family constantly breathing down her neck, eventually leading her to develop an unhealthy obsession.
Swallow joins the ever-growing catalogue of films criticising patriarchal relations, looking to stand out with its focus on pica. The film draws its potency from challenging societal expectations. Hunter, with her doe eyes and peachy complexion, might as well be married to a Ken doll and living in a lavish dollhouse.
Everything is presented as the quaint, perfect life for Hunter – so much so that a character chalks up her eating disorder to excessive comfort. However, reality is far from perfect for Hunter. She shares a marriage with a husband more obsessed with work and who is too blind to see Hunter as anything other than a trophy to show around. What’s more, her in-laws are similarly disregardful of Hunter, constantly dictating what is the best for her.
Beyond the domestic, Swallow also looks to tackle issues such as rape and abortion. While the film shows deft in visual evocation, how these very real experiences and issues are presented feel far too cheap to be truly effective. Almost every character Hunter encounters are plain caricatures that are less human than misogynistic – perhaps, intentionally in line with the overall dollhouse aesthetic.
I feel that it muddies the overall conversation the film tries to have by draining out any subtlety or layers from its characters. The watching experience itself, marked by an overwhelming sense of suffocation, is more than enough to sustain investment into Hunter’s story. However, it all dissipates once how the emotions were brought out are broken down post-viewing – surely incited by its shocking ending that might prove to be too radical for some.
The film’s various critiques are fiery, especially with Bennett’s powerhouse performance confronting the audience with every inch of fear and trauma daringly presented. But it all amounts to a strong gust of wind knocking down a terrifying monolith that might as well be made out of paper mache.
Swallow’s other focus is in portraying pica, a handling that is ambitiously intriguing in its balance between accuracy and as a narrative device. Early on, the film develops a repeating pace: misogyny, despair, swallowing inedible objects, repeat. Despite her pregnancy, the objects ingested grow ever more daring and dangerous, gouging emotions of body horror from its audience.
With each cycle, Hunter feels more and more in control of her life and body. Yet, the film never romanticises the psychological disorder. It acknowledges the disturbing consequences while integrating pica into its critiques in a fantastically twisted manner.
As strange as it sounds, this melding is so natural that it gave much needed emotional complexity in its character dynamics. However, that did require the film to make several assumptions about the eating disorder that does not necessarily reflect truth. Pica becomes an amorphous narrative device to service its lukewarm commentary on issues women face.
Another strong point comes with its technical work. Absolutely gorgeous all around. It sports a memorable visual style, thanks in part to its brilliant use of colour, that makes its world perfect for unnerving psychological horror. Blood – rare but stiffly potent every time it shows up – simply feels out of place. Yet, the same reddish hue is helplessly carried by Hunter’s visage – the same visual alienation is mercilessly reminded through frequent, unforgiving close-ups.
The film is a technical treat that, ironically, showers all its love on its lead. The cast of side characters simply wasn’t given much to do or even a range to expound on. Bennett, meanwhile, practically carries the movie on her back. Her character moves from sympathetic, to frustratingly naive, to outright broken, with Bennett meeting every beat head-on.
Narrative wise, she does go through a descent into madness of sorts, yet her performance is grounded enough that “madness” hardly feels like the appropriate adjective. It’s in her growing embracement of her eating disorder where she finally finds control and Bennett’s performance marvellously leaves the audience helplessly stuck between empathy and frustration.
Swallow is an extremely ambitious film that unfortunately lacked focus. It’s a rare example of the watching experience itself being so disturbing, so engaging, so horrifying, yet leaves a sour aftertaste. Without strong side characters with realistic depth, what turns out to be most striking for me is in its shocks, rather than its levied message and commentary. Nevertheless, the film should definitely be experienced for its powerhouse leading performance and excellent technical work.
The film is the first of a series of releases on Shaw Theatres’ new virtual cinema platform, Kinolounge. Swallow is now available for rent at $12.99 per patron.
The film is definitely a hard-to-swallow experience that begs for discussion. Fortunately, Shaw Organisation and Singapore Film Society will be organising a Zoom Q&A session with director Carlo Mirabella-Davis tomorrow, 5 July, 8:30pm. Interested participants can attend the Q&A for free here.