on: Swallow

Synopsis: Hunter (Haley Bennett) has it all. A rich husband, a gorgeous house, a baby on the way, and an addiction to eating non-food items like metal and dirt. Wait, what was that last one again?

1. Swallow must be commended for avoiding the obvious temptation to turn into a gawking freakshow, or a more upscale version of My Strange Addiction. Instead, Carlo Mirabella-Davis, in a very promising directorial debut, chooses to veer as far away from gawking as possible by infusing his film with a cool, almost objective remove. Swallow is a hell of a stylistic feat, and an absolute feast for the eyes. The fact that it is a little slight (and a tad too reliant on cliché) means that it cannot be called perfect by any means, but there is more than enough style and verve exhibited to make it a firm recommendation and create anticipation for whatever Mirabella-Davis is planning to work on next.

2. The first half or so of Swallow can be easily summed up as ‘style not matching substance’. I dislike the ‘style over substance’ argument generally, but it does work when talking about this film, especially considering that the central plot of ‘rich blonde childlike housewife develops psychological issues’ is literally warmed up leftovers from Season One of Mad Men (down to the fact that the husband is in league with the psychiatrist). There’s not a lot left that can be said about the suburban ennui of the unfulfilled housewife, and the film is also hampered by the fact that Hunter’s husband (Austin Stowell) and his nasty WASP family are painted in the broadest possible strokes. Although Swallow gives it a right go, its first half never feels like more than a clever stylistic exercise.

3. In the film’s favour though, is how much style this particular stylistic exercise has. Mirabella-Davis and cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi have a meticulous sense of composition and framing, and the colour palette alone is to die for. There is an inherent challenge involved when filming largely in one location to make said location visually interesting, and the filmmakers pass this test with flying colours, thanks to the use of meticulously devised shots and some very canny camerawork [1]. Also of note is the film’s brutally effective sound design, which really, really, really makes the viewer feel the sensation going through Hunter each time she puts a new object into her mouth.

I mean, just look at that shot! Even David Fincher would be proud of that.

4. Two things elevate Swallow from the realm of ‘ok idea, well executed’ to ‘now that was interesting’. The first is the performance of lead actor (and executive producer [2]) Haley Bennett. Bennett’s career has not taken off as many predicted after her charming debut in Music and Lyrics, but with any luck, this will be the performance that catapults her to a higher plane. Without exaggeration, her work in Swallow is simply extraordinary. For much of the film, she has to emote without emoting and convey deep emotion while still maintaining the composed, placid demeanour that is expected of her. There is a brilliantly measured element to Bennett’s performance in the way that she can switch gears between different mental states effortlessly, and it is thanks to her performance that the film resonates as much as it does – with a less talented lead, Swallow would be a somewhat exploitative freakshow, but with Bennett, it rises to the level of a proper character study.


5. The second element that elevates Swallow is its mid-film twist, which I will not reveal any details of. What I will say, however, is that it is a plot development that (i) is shockingly radical (particularly as it is revealed in such a matter-of-fact manner) and (ii) transforms Swallow‘s central concern from bourgeois white feminism to a far more universal and enveloping one. The tired metaphor of the gilded cage is replaced by a far more urgent motif of bodily autonomy and a woman’s right to reclaim her identity from the forces of patriarchy. From a writing perspective alone, it is a savvy move as it allows for the plot to branch out and expand beyond the staleness of its original premise, eventually culminating in a crackerjack scene in a kitchen very different from the one where Hunter first begins her journey.

6. All in all, Swallow is an extremely promising debut from Carlo Mirabella-Davis, a psychological thriller that eventually (like its heroine), breaks past the constraints of its upper-class milieu to tell a far more interesting story than it initially promises. The marble and thumbtack eating stuff might be the big draw, but it is the impeccable filmmaking and the spectacular lead performance that really make Swallow a movie that is well worth your time. Go check it out, but just note that this is one film where you really don’t want to be snacking on anything while watching it.

[1] One thing worth noticing is when the camera shifts to handheld. For a film that is largely filmed in sedate, composed shots, the handheld moments are a very effective stylistic and emotional shift.

[2] Normally an almost meaningless title, but it tends to signal that an actor is extremely involved/committed to a film whenever their name pops up in the EP credits.






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