A pretty young woman, Hunter (Haley Bennett), meticulously unpacks boxes in her new, meticulous home. A lamb is taken to the slaughter and becomes lamb chops. This juxtaposition of life and death is more than just a metaphor in “Swallow.”
Hunter, we soon learn, is the newlywed wife of Richard (Austin Stowell), the pampered and spoiled son of Michael (David Rasche) and Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel). Dad is the managing director of a prestigious firm and promotes his son to partner status. Life is good for the young couple and, then, gets better when Hunter tells Ritchie that she is pregnant. This is when her dominating husband and in-laws take control of her life.
The reticent young wife is helpless to rebel against her new family until, one day, she notices a decorative marble in a decorative box (part of the aforementioned meticulous abode). After pondering the orb, she pops it into her mouth and swallows it. She gives a satisfied smile. When she retrieves the marble, she puts in a place of honor.
The marble leads to other small objects of increasingly dangerous nature, like an AA battery. When she and Richard go for a sonogram – when he tells his mom about the coming baby, he announces “We’re pregnant!” – the doctor discovers the foreign objects lodged inside Hunter. This leads to an emergency surgery and earns the ire of Michael and Richard and the introduction of a full-time nurse and bodyguard, Luay (Laith Nakli), to protect her from herself.
This sounds like a weird story and it is that, in spades. But, it is also a first rate character study, by Haley Bennett, of a woman who, at first, seems like a pliable void tasked with being the perfect wife in a perfect life. Except for her new “hobby.” Bennett, not just a pretty face, has real onscreen presence and commands every scene she is in – and that is most of them.
Some may cringe, some may turn away, but none can deny that this a unique film-going experience from first time feature writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis. It is a story of suppression of self and repression by others that result in a very different story of rebellion. I give it a B.
Hunter Conrad (Haley Bennett, "The Girl on the Train") would appear to have it all – a handsome husband, a stunning mid-century modern home overlooking the Hudson Valley to decorate, a chic wardrobe and recent news of a baby on the way. But Hunter has developed a disturbing compulsion to ingest inedible objects and when her problem is uncovered her controlling husband and in-laws insist she see psychiatrist Alice (Zabryna Guevara, TV's 'Emergence') and hire 24 hour male nurse Luay (Laith Nakli, "12 Strong") to watch her every minute in “Swallow.”
In his feature debut, writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis extracts a compelling performance from Haley Bennett in a film that resembles Todd Haynes’s “Safe” crossed with “Diary of a Mad Housewife” by way of Douglas Sirk. Production designer Erin Magill’s ("Brittany Runs a Marathon") clean, neutral aesthetic combined with cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi’s ("Cam") widescreen compositions provide an architectural style that is the perfect setting for Bennett’s classic, 1950’s housewife look (costume design by “Talullah’s” Liene Dobraja) while Nathan Halpern’s ("The Rider") score establishes genre with sleek thriller elements.
“Swallow” has a slow, subtle build belied by an opening which crosscuts the introduction to our heroine with the slaughter of a lamb before transitioning to lamb chops on the dinner plates of a gathering celebrating Richie Conrad’s (Austin Stowell, "Whiplash") promotion as the youngest managing director of dad Michael’s (David Rasche) ‘little company.’ At home Hunter prepares perfectly plated dinners served to a husband whose attention quickly drifts to his cell phone. Encouraged to share a story during dinner with her parents, Hunter is rudely interrupted by Michael when he begins discussing business with his son. Hunter is clearly decorative.
So when her mother-in-law Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel, Showtime's 'Homeland') drops by a self help book she claims helped her through her own pregnancy, Hunter takes its advice to push yourself to try something new every day to heart by swallowing a marble, something she finds gives her great satisfaction. She continues with such objects as a pushpin, AA battery and safety pin, arranging the objects as she passes them, but when she ends up in the hospital after doubling over in pain and her secret is revealed, Hunter becomes little more than a baby vessel to the Conrads.
Not only does “Swallow” highlight the unusual pica compulsion, it keeps veering off the expected path. The film’s main problem is that its transitions are a bit bumpy, leaving the main story we’ve invested in entirely behind for its last act. It does do this, though, with rationale seeded by a conversation between Hunter and Ajay, one which at first seems to dismiss her only to circle around in recognition.
Nakli is, in fact, the film’s most impressive supporting player, the only character who truly sees beyond Hunter’s surface. Stowell is quickly exposed as a shallow sociopath, Rasche and Marvel too simply drawn. The third act appearance of Denis O’Hare promises, but disappoints, his character contrived. Babak Tafti and Nicole Kang both have small moments as coworkers of Richie’s. But Bennett, who strongly resembles Jennifer Lawrence, is the real deal as a woman imprisoned by her own truth until she sets herself free, happier flown her gilded cage, and Mirabella-Davis’s female body control thriller marks him one to watch.
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