2019 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: An incredibly upsetting film with a stunning central performance, “Swallow” dares its audience to keep watching. Graphic and uncompromising, this character study generated walkouts during its festival screening, which should be no surprise. Any story centered around a pregnant housewife who develops a predilection for consuming inedible objects is going to be divisive at best. This is definitely the film writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis wanted to make. The question is, why do it? The work never truly reflects on its own miserable existence.
“Swallow” is watchable almost exclusively due to the performance of Haley Bennett. In a role asking everything from her, she’s more than game. Things quickly become overwrought, but Bennett’s portrayal is grounded in a tragic way. A third act revelation only works because there’s true, emotional investment in her character. The writing and direction haven’t given much to the character, so Bennett takes her chance when she can.
Life looks perfect for Hunter (Bennett), a newly pregnant bride. Married to the wealthy Richie (Austin Stowell) and living in a giant home her in-laws Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel) and Michael (David Rasche) purchased for them. It’s an ideal existence on the surface. On the inside, however, Hunter is wracked with anxiety and depression. One day, it rears its head by compelling her to swallow a marble. The act brings her some type of vague euphoria. Chasing that feeling, next time, it’s a sharp pin, with bigger and bigger objects to follow. It’s a secret she loves having, until she winds up in the hospital and everyone literally finds out what she has inside of her.
As her husband and his family react to this revelation by tightening their control over her, Hunter becomes both insistent that she’s fine and desperate to continue. Her home becomes an asylum, while Richie shows a darker and darker side. A home attendant is eventually brought into the fray, literally taking away her freedom. Whatever life she thought was hers, it is long gone. As circumstances devolve further, Hunter takes a drastic step to try and figure out the root of this obsession.
Haley Bennett rightly received recognition in the form of an award at the festival for her work here. “Swallow” would be nothing without her. While David Rasche and especially Austin Stowell are caricatures, Bennett is three dimensional. The look on her face after she swallows something is as quizzical to the audience as it is satisfying. Whether she’s putting on her babe in the woods front for family and friends or finding bliss in her dangerous fetish, Bennett sells every element. If the entire film was like her performance, this would be an absolute gem. Among the rest of the cast, Elizabeth Marvel is wasted, while Denis O’Hare appears at the conclusion for an essential, but an under-utilized role.
Filmmaker Carlo Mirabella-Davis really goes for broke. Graphic close-ups of literal swallowing of objects, shots of surgical removals, bloody toilets, it’s all here. The only element missing is a point. Why is this the story being told? Hints at abuse are thrown in, but they’re never fleshed out. Plus, just as the plot is moving in a new direction and becoming interesting, it abruptly ends. Mirabella-Davis shows a keen eye for composing antiseptic interior shots, but his script is all over the map. He especially comes up short with the supporting players. Richie, in particular, devolves into a broad villain at the worst time, narratively. Already swimming upstream with his choices, Mirabella-Davis just piles on another questionable decision.
“Swallow” challenges its audience to keep watching and not look away. Some may take the dare and be thrilled with what you witness. Others may throw up their hands and check out. Both would be easily defendable positions. Haley Bennett gives this one something to put on a pedestal, but everything else falls well short of the mark. Bennett’s turn deserves to be seen outside of the festival circuit, but the film itself doesn’t earn that same esteem.