Swallow, Squirm-Inducing Feminist Cinema

My gag reflex is notorious for anyone who’s ever called me their dentist or doctor. There’s a strong resistance to the very thought of gagging or choking, a powerful emotion that induces the feeling itself when provoked, even by imagery. So it goes that Swallow, the excellent feature directorial debut from Carlo Mirabella, is such a provocateur. An astute psychological thriller, Swallow announces Mirabella as clearly a director to keep an eye on for the foreseeable future. His little film gets under your skin and, once it’s found a creepy home for itself, reveals itself to be a stunning character study about gender roles, marital suffocation, and hereditary trauma.

Haley Bennett is Hunter, a woman recently married to a white-collar big shot and supposed nice guy (Austin Stowell). A happy homemaker with no skills, or so we’re told, she spends her days sketching horizons from their upper-class glass house along the Hudson River. From the house itself to interior decoration, her husband seems to make all of their decisions for them. He’s insensitive, distracted, slyly egotistical, and absolutely controlling, and she’s suffocating under the weight of his expectations and the pressures inherent to having wealthy, nosy in-laws (Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche). Hunter’s a kept woman whose only purpose to him seems to be cooking, cleaning, and bearing a child. With family baggage of her own in tow, it’s no wonder she succumbs to pica, an eating disorder that compels her to swallow inedible and inanimate objects.

That’s when the squirming starts. The suspense is nearly unbearable watching Hunter slowly decide to and then swallow a marble, or even worse, a thumbtack. The objects become progressively more difficult and obtuse: a battery, metal figurines, even a miniature screwdriver. Naturally, her other half reacts poorly, particularly after she ends up pregnant. A live-in nanny moves in, but he’s a stone-faced Syrian refugee, more like a security guard than a nanny. He’s meant to protect her from herself, an ultimately futile gesture. A shrink is hired for therapy, but patient confidentiality is compromised. Everything they do only adds insult to Hunter’s emotional injury. They seek to control instead of treat, condescend to her instead of showing compassion for her. She is surrounded by the ever-tightening screws of an overbearing patriarchy and Swallow is a perfectly suspenseful encapsulation of such a terrible predicament.

Bennett is a revelation, having only co-starred in a few middlebrow dramas. She proves herself incredibly capable of moments that are subtle and showy, sobering and harrowing. Hunter is a meek, repressed individual who can’t see her husband and his family for the feeble, vapid creatures that they are until said creatures try to decide her future for her. When Hunter finally escapes to explore and uncover her trauma, it’s some of the most riveting cinema I’ve seen all year. A duet scene with Denis O’Hare (excellent as always) is unexpectedly moving, as she seeks out a man from her mother’s past who might have the answers she’s looking for. The film’s final shot, a feminist statement so simple yet so invigorating, is an ode to women everywhere.

P.S. With so much time spent with Hunter all by her lonesome at home, it’s the perfect film for right now if you’re participating in quarantine.

Grade: A-

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