What is the difference between a jerk and an abuser? That’s one of the timely questions that swirls around “Swallow,” a fascinating psychological thriller with echoes of Douglas Sirk and Alfred Hitchcock. Hunter (Haley Bennett) is the new bride of Richie Conrad (Austin Stowell), the son of an investment banker who has been gifted a beautiful house, cushy job, and all the trappings of a perfect life by his blue-blood lineage. The only choice he made for himself was his wife. He picked Hunter up while she was working a retail job, and, when we meet her, she is failing to fit into a world in which she is asked to play the perfect housewife, endure the condescension of her in-laws, and otherwise keep her mouth shut. She has perfected the placid, pleasing demeanor of a ‘50s housewife, but her eyes burn with modern rage.
Those looking for a simple revenge tale will be thrown by what comes next. She begins swallowing inanimate objects, particularly sharp ones. It’s a real condition known as Pica, but the film by Carlo Mirabella-Davis is more interested in it as a symbol for the female agency. Her needs are ignored by her loved ones, and any decisions she is “allowed” to make – like what color drapes she’ll have her in her home – are subtly criticized by her husband. Putting marbles, thumb tacks, and screws down her throat is just about the only thing she can do that makes her feel seen.
“Swallow” is part body horror, part melodrama, and entirely unsettling. While Mirabella-Davis is clearly proficient with genre, he lets Hunter’s journey guide the film in its natural direction and uses thoughtful formal choices to express her inner experience. The house where Hunter spends her days is full of crisp, clean lines, with floor-to-ceiling windows that bathe each room in natural light, mocking her emotional captivity. The film is imbued with a great sensitivity to texture, from the soft, clean carpet to the hard edges of the dining room table. It marvelously puts the viewer in Hunter’s headspace, where everything is begging to be touched or consumed.
The smart, playful direction is buoyed by Bennett’s stellar performance. Having turned heads in supporting roles in the remake of “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Girl on the Train,” she makes the most of this meaty lead role, portraying Hunter as a woman forced to be at odds with herself. She ping-pongs between steely reserve, intense vulnerability, and pure salesmanship: her performance is never more captivating than when Hunter is trying to convince someone – her husband, her in-laws, her therapist – that she’s fine.
As a character study with social implications and a firm sense of style, “Swallow” is an absolute winner. It’s only in the final scenes that the film loses its nerve. Mirabella-Davis is intent on explicating Hunter’s condition in a way that is too pat, both narratively and psychologically. He delves deep into her past and shows us a trauma that is supposed to explain her conditions. All it ends up doing is separating her from the audience, making her an oddity rather than an everywoman. It’s one ingredient too many, when, most of the time, “Swallow” is delicious enough on its own.
“Swallow” is available now on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Vudu.