The longing for control can be a truly frustrating one that can force people to drastic measures to feel free in their own lives. This inner battle is the idea behind a psychological thriller-drama release about a month ago called “Swallow”. Writer and freshman director Carlo Mirabella-Davis explores the story of an emotionally stifled young woman who develops pica, an impulse to consume non-edible items, in an attempt to give herself at least something she controls in her life. Just the very idea behind this film induced discomfort in potential viewers and after some consideration and seeing the reaction it has received I decided to give this film a chance myself to experience its disturbing but allegedly raw and inspired premise. What could have been a more graphic thriller actually ends up being much more insightful than I think anyone expected.
In “Swallow” Haley Bennett plays Hunter, a newly married woman who is shy and submissive to her well-off husband Richie, played by Austin Stowell. She spends her days alone in their home eventually craving attention and emotional satisfaction as she finds Richie to be distant and self-involved. Hunter eventually develops the urge to eat non-edible objects, consuming them in private and eventually taking her obsession to more dangerous levels. What Hunter experiences is a real life disorder called pica and while we do see her ingest some very disturbing items in the movie, from a marble to a thumbtack and even a screwdriver, what sounds like a disease straight out of a horror movie setup is handled with tact and understanding thanks to the carefully crafted direction of Carlo Mirabella-Davis and Haley Bennett’s excellent performance which draws more from her character’s desire for control than her desire to eat strange things. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a very disturbing film and not for those with weak stomachs or a low tolerance level for graphically real imagery. We still see a woman eating some pretty dangerous things nobody should be swallowing. However, rather than dwelling on the disturbing nature of the disorder this film presents it as a simple normality for its main character that only she seems to fully understand.
What makes this film so engrossing isn’t the terrifying disorder, it’s the harsh realities around Hunter that drive her to embrace pica as her way out. Hunter is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage and although the film provides little insight or development into exactly why she found Richie so appealing in the first place what we do get to experience is her husband evolving effortlessly from a lover to a self-centered rich boy with his own interests in mind and little acknowledgement of his significant other’s emotional needs. It’s not just Hunter’s marriage that challenges her. Her relationship with her in-laws makes her feel more like a tag-along, she has few friends beyond the walls of her home, and we find out later in the film her relationship with her family isn’t much more rewarding. “Swallow’s” premise utilizes a real world disorder to allow Hunter an opportunity for control she probably never had and once she embraces her diagnosis we see her open up and challenge her husband finally showing the strong willed person hiding beneath her more reserved personality. Hunter’s journey in this movie, complimented by an engaging performance by Bennett, is actually quite fascinating as a unique take on self-liberation that few movies are able to capture so creatively.
While one could argue that “Swallow” lacks many complex characters beyond Hunter, I think that may have been by design. We’re meant to experience this story through Hunter’s perspective, so yeah there may be some redeeming qualities behind her husband and in-laws that we don’t get to see. While we do in fact see a few other secondary characters bond with her, this is Hunter’s story and we’re meant to understand relationships through her eyes to fully appreciate the isolation she feels in her life. It’s an uncomfortable reality that isn’t even a worst-case scenario, but it’s disturbing nonetheless and, yes, many may find even more of a connection to Hunter’s plight thanks to the isolation and loneliness abundant during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. My one real issue with the film is the very end where I feel things might have been rushed to a conclusion. I actually had to research exactly what Hunter does in those final moments and it’s yet another brutal decision she makes for herself that I feel could have used a bit more exploration. The movie is just over an hour and a half long so maybe adding ten or fifteen more minutes to better examine her final decision could have complimented an already excellent story even more.
“Swallow” is a fantastic and carefully crafted film that tackles powerful and uncomfortable themes with a unique spin. While this could have easily devolved into a horror-esque cringe-fest, “Swallow” forgoes embellishing its graphic imagery for a more raw approach respecting the realities of pica disorder with an appreciation for its main character’s personal journey and what drove her to such extreme measures. It’s still horrific in the sense that is captures the destructive effects of isolation, emotional detachment and a longing for control, but “Swallow” could have easily been an overdone mess of a film meant more to disgust than to enlighten. Thankfully its most unsettling elements come from its realism rather than an attempt to cash in on a gimmick. A committed lead performance and passionate direction help “Swallow” become a inspired and mesmerizing must-see character study that should hopefully make it an instant classic.