Get ready to wince.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s Swallow is a tense, slick film: body horror and nightmarish losses of control in settings that look like they could have been clipped out of the glossiest lifestyle magazines around. The film centers on Hunter, a newly married woman played by Haley Bennett. Bennett is a talented actress who has had notably poor luck in choosing her roles, ending up in high-profile but forgettable films like The Girl on the Train and 2016’s remake of The Magnificent Seven–not to mention The Devil All the Time, a black hole that sucked all the appeal out of excellent material and a whole host of great actors. Here, she finally gets a chance to shine.
Hunter has married into a wealthy family with their own corporation–“What did you do for money before your met my son?” her mother-in-law inquires, ice-cold under a thin veneer of ordinary curiosity; the rich specialize in these kinds of passive-aggressive tactics, all playing off social rules they won’t share–and has just gotten pregnant. Her tasteful home exists in a kind of vacuum-sealed cleanness, and one of the first and biggest cracks in her life comes when we see her have to put on rubber gloves and plunge her hands into the toilet bowl to retrieve a marble she’d swallowed. On the outside, her life is made up of carefully chosen dresses and rigorously arranged rooms. On the inside–and the inside of her body is the only inside she’s really able to have–it’s all blood and shit. For a long time, it’s hard to say which is more horrific, and then it’s easy: by the time she’s eating handfuls of soil off a motel bedspread, we’re just glad she’s out of that house and away from that family.
Hunter’s burgeoning pica gives her a sense of control, and she lines up the objects she’s swallowed–and passed–like polished trophies. It’s a form of self-harm, but it’s also a way of rebelling against the narrow strictures of her new life. “I did something unexpected today,” she tells husband Richie (Austin Stowell), after that first marble. Her story, as we gradually learn–the film has a terrific sense of timing and pacing, evolving and revealing on its own organic schedule–has always depended on repression and lies. She’s used to people telling her they love her, telling her she’s part of the family, and not really meaning it.
But her pregnancy has put her in a situation where she has to ostensibly continue that chain of lies and inadequate love, and it snaps something in her, setting off her newfound tendency to swallow marbles, safety pins, batteries, pushpins, and even a miniature screwdriver. Her husband and in-laws are more outraged than horrified–how could she do something so déclassé, something that would reflect badly on them? How could she jeopardize the child, which they preemptively view as one more link in their dynastic chain? (“Future CEO of the company right there,” her father-in-law croons to her stomach.) The actual Hunter dwindles in their view more and more each day until something finally has to give.
Mirabella-Davis takes the story in an unexpected but inevitable direction, sparing all the exposition and explanations and getting right into the actions and moments where the characters show us who they are. There’s an unexpectedly beautiful–and risky–scene towards the end, at a birthday party, one that’s perfect even on a micro-level.
Swallow is genuinely great, a deserving spiritual sequel to Todd Haynes’s Safe and a standout film in the new, and excellent, horror wave.