The horror genre is no stranger to films about women suffering in an abusive relationship or as the victim of a patriarchal mindset. Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and most recently, The Invisible Man all come to mind. Swallow, written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, takes the well-known storyline about a woman trapped in an unhappy relationship and does something incredibly unique with it. The female lead, Hunter (Haley Bennett), has pica, a disorder that causes her to eat nonfood items. Yet, this very disorder gives her a sense of agency that she’s never felt. The real horror is the fact that Hunter feels so powerless that she resorts to swallowing objects, while the real monsters are her dismissive husband and his work buddies and family who view her solely as subservient to her husband.
So many early scenes feature close-ups of food and teeth, preparing the viewer for what’s to come. In the first minutes, we witness a sheep scooped up by a butcher, slaughtered, and then presented as tender meat on the plates of Hunter, her hubby Richie (Austin Stowell), and his family and colleagues, as they praise him. Hunter is subdued in this scene and throughout the film’s first half. She simply sits by Richie’s side, smiling, as praise is bestowed upon him and he tosses out a few kind words to her. Immediately, we know the dynamics of the relationship. He’s the go-getter and breadwinner, the suit-wearing schmoozer who climbed to the top, while she’s the housewife, who, even if she’s tired of the fancy dinners and the accolades given to her husband, never shows it. Instead, she wonders what more she can do to please him, while smiling at dinner or vacuuming their swanky home in heels and a dress. Stowell and Bennett each shine in their roles. She projects an innocence that draws sympathy from the viewer, while his smugness and arrogance make for an increasingly monstrous character.
In another dinner scene, this time at home, she confesses that she feels lucky to be with him. He initially ignores her, too busy texting on his phone, before he looks up for a second, only to half smile, and then text again. Here, the camera lingers on her stunned face, and though she says nothing, the hurt is evident by the facial expression. The camera then pulls back to a middle shot, and we see the couple seated at the table, through the windows. Nothing is said between them, and the emotional distance between them is even more pronounced. The silence between the two speaks multitudes about their relationship. It’s a simple, but effective scene, one that shows the quiet pain and insecurity that Hunter harbors, primarily shown through her facial expression.
Throughout the first act, Hunter’s devotion is shown in many other ways. She asks Richie if she makes him happy. She even irons his tie, to his disgust, because it should have been steamed. When his mother says she should grow her hair out because Richie “likes his girls with long, beautiful hair,” she says nothing to the contrary. All of this culminates in the news that Hunter is pregnant, and seemingly happy to carry Richie’s child.
Yet, it’s clear that Hunter feels trapped, even if she withholds her reservations about a child. By this point, there have been enough scenes illustrating Richie’s condescending attitude towards Hunter that we relate to her and understand her worries. Many scenes feature Hunter alone in the house, and the spacious rooms and rolling mountains create a sense of isolation. If she does leave the house, it’s typically to attend one of Richie’s work dinners or parties. She is stuck, and the only means she has to pierce through Richie’s world is through her pica. This is shown early on when she picks up a piece of ice and crunches it so loudly that it halts the dinner conversation. Finally, everyone pays attention to her. Furthermore, the crunching occurs after she was cut off in mid-conversation and ignored.
The ice is the start. Eventually, she swallows a marble, a thumbtack, cold pieces of metal, and larger, sharper objects that lead to hospitalization. This causes Richie to hire help so Hunter’s never left alone. It’s the help, Luay (Laith Nakli), who shows any empathy towards her. On some level, Luay seems to understand the torment and unhappiness that Hunter endures but never expresses. He tells her early on that he fled Syria due to war. Though he never says it outright, he must understand her desire to escape, since he fled his country in order to survive.
As the film unfolds and as Hunter sees a therapist for her disorder, we learn more about her, most importantly that her mom was raped and her biological father is the rapist. This is a trauma she’s carried around with her but has never discussed, not even to Richie. She even carries a picture of the rapist in her wallet, cut out from a newspaper article.
Despite Hunter’s past, and despite the outright verbal abuse she suffers from Richie, who, at one point says she “sits home all day, picks out curtains, and makes scrapbooks,” Hunter’s story is not one of victimhood and sorrow by the last act. The power dynamics are pushed further and she finds her own voice, to the point that she even locates and confronts her biological father, Erwin (Denise O’Hare). This climax shows the evolution of Hunter’s character from a doting housewife to someone who faces her past in order to process and overcome the trauma.
The real monsters of Swallow are humans. Richie is as vile as they come, constantly dismissing and belittling his wife. His family and co-workers are just as bad, frequently interrupting or ignoring Hunter. Her triumph over a society and lifestyle that she wants no part of is well-earned. This evolution of character, and the themes that Swallow explores, make for a solid viewing experience. Give it a stream. Just don’t choke on the popcorn.
Swallow is currently streaming on VOD via IFC Midnight.
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