Haley Bennett captivates in this remarkably poignant depiction of mental illness
Typically a film at Fantastic Fest will come with a hook, a premise that is likely to entertain, make audiences squirm, and often think. Every so often a film arrives that does all that, but surprises you with how deeply and deftly to it tackles a sensitive topic; so it is with Swallow.
Hunter (Haley Bennett) leads what looks like a perfect life. She has a beautiful home, a handsome husband, and financial security. A dutiful wife, she comes across as prim, proper, and precise. Her personality is dictated by the needs and wants of her husband. She has been placed on a pedestal and seems perpetually poised to hold herself there. She even hides the fact she plays a game on her phone from her husband, seemingly the one vice she allows herself, until one day when she finds a new outlet. Precipitated by the discovery that she is pregnant, Hunter develops an unusual predilection: swallowing objects around the house. What starts with ice cubes moves on to a marble before more extreme objects, one of which taxes her body too far. The ensuing medical treatment exposes her secret, and the control exerted by her in-laws starts to become far more overt. As life becomes increasingly restricted, what seemed like a an effort by Hunter to break the rules, to exert control over her own body, or just feel something, actually points to a deeper underlying trauma.
Pica is a known eating disorder, one where an individual compulsorily eats items with no nutritional value that may or may not pose a danger to them. The trigger for Hunter is the discovery she is with child, causing painful memories to resurface, compounded by the toxic situation she currently finds herself in: a woman in submission, unwilling or unable to escape this situation. It becomes ritualistic, like an addiction. As someone might line up cocaine on a mirror, so does Hunter with the various trinkets she has ‘passed’. Pieces of her past and current mental state are teased out through some sessions with a psychologist after her condition is uncovered by her husband. The looming threat of locking herself into this life fuels her condition.
Haley Bennett captivates in every frame of this film, adopting an affected language with breathless delivery, reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe or Nicole Kidman towards the end of The Stepford Wives. Hunter is a repressed soul, and Bennett’s performance reflects this, using movement, tics, and expressions to convey a world of pain. The film hinges on her performance, and she delivers depth and pathos in every phase of Hunter’s journey. Austin Stowell and Elizabeth Marvel are pitch perfect as the passive-aggressive wealthy parents; equally adept is David Rasche as a son modeled in their image. The only other player is Laith Nakli as a enforcer-type, referred to as a nurse. Harkening from a war torn land, the gruff muscle offers a surprisingly tender contribution to Hunter’s progression.
Writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis has put together a remarkably poignant and insightful depiction of mental illness, one that feels impressively attuned to the female experience. Swallow feels intensely personal; apparently the basis of the story was informed by his own memories of his Grandmother’s behavioral problems. And yet, the situations presented and the plight of this woman should resonate with many. There are undeniable moments of darkness, decisions that carry real weight, but Mirabella-Davis retains a light touch. There’s deadpan humor laden with observational and societal commentary that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lanthimos venture. The script also excels in allowing this character and moments time to breathe. Quiet, dialogue-free moments allow Bennett to flex her prowess as the camera lingers on the clack of a marble or other object against her teeth, the saliva-drenched object she spits out as she reconsiders her actions, or the deep guttural noises she makes as the ingests or expels a particularly egregious object. The production also has an ambiguity about it. Despite the mobile phones and modern sports cars, there is an air of the ‘50s conveyed in the set design, decor, Hunter’s wardrobe, and most pertinently the chauvinistic tendencies of her in-laws and husband. Regressive acts and words do as much as art deco furniture to thrust us back into a bygone age. It’s a production where every facet feels geared towards the story and its protagonist, and is all the stronger for it.
Carlo Mirabella-Davis is to be applauded for tackling this topic with such grace. A delicate touch is matched by a tour de force performance from Haley Bennett, giving Swallow incredible potency. As melancholic as it is hopeful, and as uncomfortable as it is absorbing, it’s a deeply affecting dive into trauma and a woman’s vital journey towards discovering self-worth.