(Carlo Mirabella-Davis, USA, 2020, 95 minutes)
This is the day, your life will surely change
This is the day, when things fall into place.
--The The, "This Is the Day"
The evocatively named Hunter (Haley Bennett, who recalls Michelle Williams as interpreted by Jennifer Lawrence) has what appears be an enviable life. She's pretty, she has a handsome husband, and they live in a Tom Ford-like Poughkeepsie ranch house overlooking a Hudson Valley lake. With her blonde bob, full skirts, and sensible heels, she resembles one of Hitchcock's cool blonde heroines, like Tippi Hedren in The Birds or (especially) Marnie.
Even if I didn't know Swallow was a psychological thriller, I'd still know something was off by the way writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis (The Swell Season) opens on three small lambs in a pen clinging to each other as the husband, Richie (Colossal's Austin Stowell), walks towards them. Through the magic of editing, one unfortunate quickly becomes dinner. The symbolism is clear: Hunter is a lamb on her way to the slaughter.
That sequence, which culminates in a "lamb and cabernet" dinner party for Richie's business associates, also reveals that his parents (Lincoln's Elizabeth Marvel and Succession's David Rasche) purchased his home. This is never a good sign, in fiction or in reality, since it means the couple is beholden to them. The house is also isolated. On the one hand, these two lovebirds can take romantic walks in the woods free from intrusions. On the other hand, if something goes wrong, help may not arrive in time.
|Bennett, Stowell, Rasche, and Marvel / IFC Films|
At this point, it's worth noting that she signed up for this, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't sympathize with her. For all we know, her options were limited. Or that's what the former sales associate believes, since she lacks a sense of self. This is where a supportive social circle might come in, but since she doesn't have one, her feelings of helplessness accelerate. The one thing she can control: her body. She can change it by the things she swallows. Though I was expecting the sort of feminist body horror of Julia Ducournau's Raw or Marina de Van's In My Skin, Hunter's eating disorder, pica, isn't really that uncommon. But it isn't exactly well known either.
|The heart is a lonely Hunter / IFC Films|
The situation shifts when medical attention becomes necessary after an item gets stuck. Her secret is no longer a secret, and Richie isn't sympathetic. The in-laws swoop in with a plan involving a nutrient-rich diet, psychiatric care, and a 24-hour minder, Syrian refugee Loay (Laith Nakli). It's all designed to keep her healthy, but now she's more powerless than ever. "I'm not a baby," she complains, but the infantilization continues.
Gradually, Hunter fills the therapist in on her family background. It helps to explain her behavior, but the disclosure causes new complications. Although there's no devil worship involved, the film enters Rosemary’s Baby territory once she decides that everybody--her husband, her in-laws, and even the therapist--are out to get her. And she isn't completely wrong.
|Hunter gialloicizes the baby's nursery / IFC Films|
If the ending is too neat, it's also emotionally satisfying, because it's more about taking control than getting revenge. Bennett, who served as executive producer, really sells her character's arc from timid homemaker to woman who speaks up for herself (when I reviewed Gregg Araki's Kaboom in 2011, I complained that her "blasé act gets old fast," but she's come a long way since then). An outspoken woman with legitimate concerns may not sound like horror to the average viewer, but to patriarchal control freaks like her husband and his family: it definitely is.
Swallow opens Mar 13 at the Varsity Theatre. You can also rent it on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Vudu. For insights into the making of the film, I recommend Sara Michelle Fetters' interview with Mirabella-Davis.