In Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ directorial debut, Swallow, Hunter (Haley Bennett) has a perfect life. She’s married to attractive businessman Richie (Austin Stowell), lives in a mansion bought by his wealthy parents (Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche) and she’s just found out that she’s pregnant. However, Hunter’s life is a facade and she is beginning to crumble under the pressure of her controlling in-laws and her husband’s high expectations.
Hunter is expected to be the perfect, doting housewife. She keeps the house in pristine condition and looks immaculate while doing so, often vacuuming in dresses and heels. Her life feels straight out of the ’50s or as though she is a porcelain doll trapped inside a dollhouse. Hunter lacks her own voice. She has no friends of her own and the way she looks, thinks and behaves are controlled by Richie and his family. In one scene, Katherine (Marvel) tells her that she should grow her hair out because “Richie likes his girls with long, beautiful hair.” The way Hunter is treated is infuriating to watch unfold on screen.
While out for dinner to celebrate Hunter’s pregnancy, she finds herself talked over and shunned out of the conversation completely. She begins to chew on an ice-cube, admiring the texture, which serves as the catalyst to the dangerous habit she develops to cope. Pica is a disorder where a person eats inedible and sometimes life-threatening objects. While pica sounds like something made up purely for a body horror film, it’s actually a real condition. Hunter begins with swallowing a glass marble, but soon moves onto other objects like thumbtacks and safety pins. After they’ve gone through her digestive system, Hunter cleans and displays them like trophies, meaning they are the only thing in the house that embodies such a disgusting history–a little secret that’s just for herself.
In an interview with Moveable Fest, Mirabella-Davis said that the film was inspired by his grandmother, who was an unhappily married homemaker in the ’50s: “She developed various rituals of control—she was an obsessive hand-washer and would go through four cakes of soap in a day and 12 bottles of rubbing alcohol a week, and I think she felt a need for order in the life she was powerless in.” Mirabella-Davis went onto explain that his grandmother was eventually put into a mental institution, adding that he “always felt there was something punitive about how she was treated, that she was being punished in a way for not living up to society’s expectations of what they felt a wife or mother should be.”
Similarly to Mirabella-Davis’ grandmother, Hunter uses pica to bring some control to a life she feels powerless in, but it all comes unraveling when Hunter’s pregnancy scan reveals various objects in her abdomen. Swallow is a hard watch as it is, considering the body horror elements, but it’s also difficult to watch the control on Hunter’s life tighten even further–she’s given medication, a live-in nurse and a therapist who feeds everything back to her husband. Pica is often classed as a subset of obsessive-compulsive disorder, a condition that typically sees people trying to control the uncontrollable. Swallow takes the condition seriously and represents it with care and realism as it shows how emotional abuse and trauma can manifest into something distressing and misunderstand.
Swallow juxtapositions its luscious, pastel colors and precise composition with macabre imagery of Hunter swallowing various objects and the consequences–such as her doubled over in pain. This sharp and impressive filmmaking represents Hunter’s life–beautiful, but controlled. Katelin Arizmendi’s cinematography is striking and captures the isolation Hunter feels despite her life seeming fulfilling on the surface. This talent comes as no surprise considering Arizmendi worked on Daniel Goldhaber’s Cam and Denis Villeneuve’s highly anticipated Dune.
As Hunter confronts the dark secret behind her obsession, the film’s third act gives her some more agency. While it’s interesting to explore Hunter’s past and how previous traumas contributed to her developing pica, it feels somewhat anticlimactic considering the intriguing narrative that came before it. Despite this, Swallow remains a strong and unique debut from Miraballa-Davis and the end still manages to pack a punch.
Overall, Swallow manages to provide great insight into the life of a woman controlled with a compelling and distinctive narrative. Bennett gives a subtle yet powerful performance with her soft-spoken voice and unsettling desire to swallow objects. There are many scenes where Hunter is alone and doesn’t speak much, but Bennett is able to communicate all we need to know. Having seen her in Music and Lyrics and The Girl on the Train, Bennett is certainly someone who possesses remarkable range and Swallow will not be the last time we hear from her.