Directorial debuts like Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ mesmerizing “Swallow” show the freedom that comes with unrestricted introduction. Mirabella-Davis combs each scene with scrupulous detail, harmonizing his principal heroine’s internal chaos with her external domestic imprisonment. As Hunter, Haley Bennett gives career-best work channeling a modern-day housewife afflicted with pica, a craving for non-edible substances or objects. The eating disorder is often associated with pregnant women suffering from iron deficiency. In the case of this expectant mother, Hunter’s physiological desires are commandeered by underlying depression and compartmentalized trauma. Implanting a real psychological condition that affects countless women into a domiciliary setting with Hitchcock flair makes this essential drama impossible to ignore.
Hunter’s grand estate overlooks the Hudson river, a symbolic moat that keeps this involuntary princess trapped in her castle and away from a world with better opportunities. She’s married to the aptly named Richie (Austin Stowell), a handsome yet entitled young entrepreneur who is on the precipice of taking over his father’s financial services company. While he’s at work, Hunter performs a daily ritual of ensuring the home’s lavish interior design remains nothing less than “Architectural Digest” perfection before Richie comes home. Her robotic house patrolling and cipher countenance pay homage to Delphine Seyrig’s single-mother protagonist from Chantel Akerman’s feminist masterpiece “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.” Like that classic, Hunter is a woman whose regimented domestic lifestyle reaches a dark tipping point that offers no easy return.
Once Hunter learns she’s pregnant, she begins stifling her growing resentment by swallowing any household item she can find – marbles, thumbtacks, paper. The more her condition worsens, the bigger and sharper the objects become. During a routine ultrasound, Hunter’s secret is exposed to her in-laws and husband. Instead of asking what she wants, they force her to see a therapist (who naturally breaks doctor-patient confidentiality to her benefactors). Hunter is monitored around the clock; her mother-in-law Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel) oversees her prenatal diet but offers a small glimmer of empathy during rare heart-to-heart conversations. Katherine isn’t the stereotypical diabolical mother-in-law; she understands a woman’s survival tactic of “faking it” in order to adapt when career prospects appear hopeless. Sometimes that means giving in to a life of riches and comfort sans fulfillment.
A lesser film would exploit Hunter’s disorder by making it the center of conflict, playing right into psychological horror entertainment tropes. Instead, the narrative’s depiction of pica is given sensitive nuance and layering in order to extract the deeper trauma at its core. Mirabella-Davis does exceptional research to authenticate the experience women go through with this illness, which can arise from a multitude of factors – they aren’t randomly infected once pregnant. The story veers into darker territory as it progresses, but the more “off the rails” Hunter becomes, the more she’s ironically back in control of her former self. Haley Bennett is able to navigate Hunter’s tumultuous emotional journey with spellbinding honesty. From the beginning, Bennett surrenders everything to this seemingly powerless role, which only makes her agency reclamation that much more gratifying when it arrives.
“Swallow” stimulates the mind because many of Hunter’s outrageous actions have undefined motivation, leaving viewers to stew on their origins instead of being handed an exposition manual. The best character studies never abandon the integrity of their protagonist to appease viewers, and this indie thriller lives up to this high standard in rebellious fashion. This is thanks in large part to some top-notch craftsmanship. Katelin Arizmendi’s cinematography delivers stunning interior shots with rigid, symmetrically framed precision that perfectly complements Mirabella-Davis’ opulent mise-en-scéne. The grander the presentation, the more oppressive and claustrophobic Hunter’s environment becomes. The drama’s slow-burn pacing might wane interest midway, but the gravitational pull Bennett and her role brings is undeniable. Placing a giant spotlight on a disorder that receives almost no attention — yet takes a serious emotional toll on women — is a laudable cinematic achievement that proves there is human truth even in the most inconceivable.