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Swallow

Swallow is a starring vehicle for Haley Bennett, whose career might best be summed up by the phrase “Jennifer Lawrence said no.” It’s a movie about a pregnant woman in an abusive marriage who’s strangely compelled to ingest inedible objects. As the plot unfolds, rape and abortion are brought into the mix. And the film was written and directed by a man — namely Carlo Mirabella-Davis — who’s never made a feature-length film before.

I couldn’t even begin to count all the giant red flags I’m seeing here. Yet the critical reception was fantastic and I’m doing my best to catch up on the noteworthy films of 2020 so far, so let’s see what we’ve got.

The movie wastes no time in establishing food as a recurring motif. It opens with a sequence of a lamb getting slaughtered and cooked for a fancy dinner, just before our main character (again, that’s Haley Bennett’s role) is introduced as “Hunter”. A woman who eats everything in sight and her given name is Hunter. Seriously.

This is followed by a series of still shots, showing Hunter as the bored Stepford housewife to a millionaire (Richie, played by Austin Stowell), who’s set to take the reins of his daddy’s corporation. Clearly, this is not a movie built for subtlety.

Anyway, Hunter first develops her unusual eating disorder at the fifteen-minute mark, when she swallows a marble. She then proceeds to pass the marble, fish it out of the toilet, wash it off, and place it on her vanity. Thus we have a handy visual device to keep track of all the unusual objects she eats over the course of the film.

And faster than you can say “EEEEEW, good God that’s fucking GROSS!” we cut to Hunter watching a documentary about new mothers eating the placenta after birth. Thus the pregnancy and the eating disorder dovetail into a general fixation on what goes in and what comes out of the body. It makes for a distinctly nuanced take on the concept of body horror.

Additionally, it’s made perfectly clear that Hunter is living such an insulated monotonous life that this is the only way she knows how to push her boundaries and try something new. This is the one and only aspect of her life that isn’t shaped by or known to her husband, the one area of her life she has any illusion of control over. And it’s something that everyone else is trying to take away from her, for reasons that vary from sensible (“You’re going to hurt yourself.”) to psychotic (“You’re a freak, what the fuck is wrong with you?!”).

And I’ll give the film this: God knows pica is a far more creative eating disorder than the well-trod (and potentially even more hazardous) subjects of anorexia, bulimia, etc. It’s an inventive stand-in that gets the point across.

Then we have the visuals. It’s interesting to note that pretty much everything in this movie — the sets, the costumes, etc. — are all crisp and clean and immaculate… except for the bits pertaining to Hunter’s pica and general mental breakdown. It firmly establishes the eating disorder as an element of chaos in an otherwise perfectly ordered world. Though in this particular case, the order and the chaos are both uniquely harmful in their own ways.

This even extends to the camerawork. The entire movie was apparently shot on a tripod… right up until the half-hour mark. I won’t spoil exactly what happens in that scene, but the introduction of handheld photography escalates the film in a huge way. It signals a regime change, an element of chaos that can’t be ignored, a crossing past some point of no return. And every subsequent time when the camera goes handheld, it’s during a moment of extreme emotional duress for the protagonist. I don’t recall the last time I ever saw handheld camerawork used in such a way, and it’s really quite genius.

Things shift into a higher gear when Hunter goes in for an ultrasound and the doctors inevitably find stuff in her abdomen that shouldn’t be there. This is where the mental illness angle really comes into play, as everyone clearly knows that something is wrong with Hunter and they’re all quick to shame her for it and/or play amateur psychiatrist. And of course Hunter herself isn’t exactly willing or able to go into too much detail about her strange fixation.

Bottom line: All anyone wants is for the wealthy family to throw money at the problem until medication makes it go away and everyone can go back to the way things were. Never mind that mental health is never that simple, and the old status quo wasn’t really all that good for Hunter to begin with.

Put even more plainly, the wealthy domineering family responds to this in the only way they know how, which is to exert even more control onto Hunter than they previously were.

This is undeniably a well-crafted movie, and I applaud the filmmakers for their ambition in going after so many third rails. Yet there’s something about this movie I can’t quite put my finger on.

A lot of it has to do with the characters themselves. I don’t know if it’s the cast, the direction or what, but none of the characters register as anything more as ciphers or plot devices. They feel more like general ideas than people, especially when they behave in ways that could only make sense in the context of whatever the plot needs. Seriously, pretty much the entire third act is comprised of admittedly wonderful scenes with no plausible connective tissue to explain how we got from A to B.

It really is uncanny how every single actor performs like a billboard on the freeway: They leave an impression in the moment, to be immediately forgotten after. Again, I’m sure it doesn’t help that none of the characters are developed into anything beyond the superficial resemblance of an actual human being, but every actor here feels like a bargain bin placeholder for another, better actor. This is easily the best work that I’ve ever seen from Haley Bennett, but against her boilerplate performances in Hardcore Henry, The Girl on the Train, and The Magnificent Seven (2016), that’s not saying much. And it’s still not enough to convince me that she’s ready for the big leagues.

Another big problem is the writer/director, who was frankly out of his depth with this one. I’ve seen far more seasoned auteurs fail harder with less on their plate, though I suppose trying to take on so much for a debut project is exactly the kind of mistake that only an ambitious first-timer would make. But more than that, this is a male auteur trying to make a female-driven film about a woman’s perspective on gender issues. I’ve been around the block more than enough times to sense the subtle, subconscious difference that it makes to have a man behind the camera for such a story. Without that personal touch, those imperceptible details that could only be known firsthand by someone whose everyday life has been directly impacted by these issues every day since birth, it makes a tangible difference.

Which brings me to the third big problem. Namely, the filmmakers clearly know that they’re talking about big and important topics, but they fail to demonstrate why these topics are so big and important. It’s frustrating how the movie throws all these events and concepts onto the screen, leaving them as loose ends for the audience to figure out instead of making its own statement.

Swallow is a tricky one to review. I applaud its ambition unreservedly, with deep appreciation for the many and varied thorny subjects that it tries to tackle. And on a technical level, the production design, editing, score, shot compositions, and use of handheld photography are all sensational. Yet for all the filmmakers’ best intentions and technical mastery, they stop just short of making a coherent statement or characters recognizable as human.

It all adds up to a film that’s deeply unsettling, but not necessarily enlightening or empowering. It’s a great one for the arthouse crowd to sink their teeth into for a rental, but I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone else.

With all of that said, if this is what Carlo Mirabella-Davis can do for his debut feature, I await his sophomore attempt with great interest.

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