Hunter (Haley Bennett) is a housewife who discovers she’s pregnant, to the delight of husband Richie (Austin Stowell) and his well-to-do parents. Increasingly compelled to consume dangerous objects, Hunter’s health is put at risk and those around her are keen to exert control over her recovery, Meanwhile, Hunter is gradually forced to confront the events which have triggered her strange obsession…
There seems to be a certain amount of conjecture as to whether Swallow belongs in the horror genre as its tale of domestic drama is admittedly lacking in jumps and gore but there are plenty of chills here of the more low-key and grounded type. Even though Hunter’s condition isn’t the sort you’d normally find in this kind of tale, her situation of apparently wedded bliss spiralling into something much darker lands it firmly in terror territory. There are all too many demons to face in real life, too.
From the outset, it’s clear that Hunter isn’t totally comfortable in her world and her suspicious in-laws have a specific vision as to what sort of a wife she should be. Quietly denigrated at almost every turn, her anxiety manifests itself in a specific, unusual way as Hunter to looks to take back control of her life in any way possible.
Much of the film rests on the shoulders of Haley Bennett and her skilled performance means there is never a danger that Swallow will tip into potentially schlockier areas. Her carefully crafted exterior conceals a mass of issues within, issues which stem from a traumatic event in the past and one which is preventing her from being true to herself. Can she assert her independence? Moreover, does she want to?
Bennett is truly excellent and there’s sterling support from a fine cast in smaller roles. Austin Stowell does a fine job in capturing the swaggering confidence and privilege of Hunter’s husband Richie. David Rasche is reliably accomplished as Richie’s father and Elizabeth Marvel is fascinating as his mother, trying to relate to Hunter but always aware that her daughter-in-law is from a lower-class background and never fully committing to making a genuine connection. Laith Nakli also stands out as an initially strict nurse who reveals himself to be much more than a hired watchdog as the story progresses.
The restrained, slow burn approach may not appeal to everyone but the psychological twists and turns of the plot are generally well handled. There are a couple of minor missteps along the way, chiefly the moment in which a character you suspect was a douchebag all along displays their douchebag credentials in a way that’s a little too on-the-nose. Also, Haley’s climactic one-on-one with the person who holds the key to her fragile state benefits from a lack of melodrama but feels a smidge too neat.
This is a rare example of a movie where I would have liked the running time to be slightly longer in order to develop more of the ideas, particularly in the middle section in which Hunter meets with a therapist as they try to uncover the source of her behaviour. These scenes are quietly compelling and I would have liked the reveals to have been more gradual here. Having said this. there’s nothing wrong with the narrative choices made in this section of the film and they do fit with Hunter’s way of downplaying the most important and destructive influences on her life.
As it stands, this would be a confident portrayal of class-based tension and psychological deterioration in the face of domestic oppression but Swallow’s final passage unflinchingly presents us with the ultimate decision facing Hunter as she considers just how she can regain control of her life. It’s a bold move and without revealing what happens it’s going to prove a divisive one for some but I applaud the filmmakers, firstly for not shying away from the fact that women are faced with these dilemmas and secondly for treating the matter with the sensitivity it deserves.
Yes, there are those of us who will never accept how Swallow ends – its resolution may even provoke anger. It relates to the argument to which I wouldn’t ever profess to have the answers but if we can all appreciate the situation and be willing to discuss it then that’s surely a step in the right direction. Swallow is an unconventional film in every sense and makes its points in a way that’s far more alarming than overblown shouting matches and buckets of blood ever could. It’s a notable achievement for writer/director Carlo Mirabella Davis and his gifted cast.