Pica, a compulsion to swallow non-food items – a marble, a thumbtack, a battery, a handful of dirt, for example – is a largely-unexplored and particularly evocative form of self-harm. In Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s thriller Swallow, this act, one that affects pregnant women most often, is re-contextualized as one of defiance. Its main character Hunter (Haley Bennett) suffers from the disorder and uses it as an outlet to revolt against the suffocating oppression she experiences from her extended family.
Hunter is both perpetually lonely and perpetually scared. She has, in addition to the pica, impostor syndrome, a fear that she doesn’t deserve what she has. This is emphasized in her interactions with her in-laws, particularly her mother-in-law (Elizabeth Marvel), who spares no opportunity to remind Hunter that she’s lucky to have found her wealthy, handsome, Patrick Bateman-ish husband (Austin Stowell). Hunter’s timidity has her nervously laugh that she worked retail before assuming her lavish life, where she appears to have it all.
But the one thing that Hunter doesn’t have, is any kind of agency over her body or her decisions. From the outset of the film, Hunter experiences this externally, with the pressures of her “perfect” (read: casually overbearing and massively passive-aggressive) husband and simultaneously intrusive and dismissive in-laws. But when Hunter becomes pregnant, the oppression starts coming from within. Though Hunter goes through the motions of being happy – decorating a nursery, for example – the baby becomes a symbol of Hunter’s loss of control over herself. This becomes Hunter’s inclination to give in to the pica and begin swallowing items, consciously or unconsciously, to harm the baby and re-exert her control. It’s both more and less subtle than the themes at play in The Handmaid’s Tale and plays out in a disturbing manner before reaching a conclusion that few will see coming. There’s a twist late in the film that seems a little artificial, but it gets to a place where both Bennett and veteran actor Denis O’Hare get to play off one another in a squirm-inducing way, so I’ll allow it since it provides the film with its tensest moment.
Bennett’s Hunter is utterly composed, robotic and doll-like for the first half of the film. She’s Mad Men’s Betty Draper, or The Handmaid’s Tale’s Serena Joy – the perfect wife in the perfect home, with deep anger and resentment bubbling beneath. The more Hunter gives in to the pica, the more assertive and defiant she becomes. Throughout Swallow, we see Hunter both putting on and removing the facade of cleanliness and perfection multiple times, making us wonder which side of the character will eventually win out. Bennett’s performance is a clinic of restrained, tightly-wound anxiety and when she eventually takes hold of her circumstances, you really feel it as a viewer.
Unsurprisingly, Swallow is a film with an oral fixation. It zeroes in on everything its main character consumes, whether it’s food or not. Mouths and consumption are major themes here and everything Hunter puts in or near her mouth is carefully considered. Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi’s composition echoes Hunter’s put-togetherness. It’s all clean lines that could be mistaken from a Dwell Magazine photoshoot. Even the swallowed and regurgitated objects, neatly lined up on a counter, feel beautiful in their way, to the point that you almost – almost – understand Hunter’s fetishization with the reclaimed objects. The end of the film, with all its dirt and the composed ugliness of the suburbs, plays with the aesthetic in interesting ways, but it all feels unique to Swallow’s particularly unsettling look and feel, informing the idea that you should never put too much stock into outward appearances.
The end of the Swallow is a forthrightly feminist catharsis, seeing Hunter take the ultimate swallowed act of revolution which is loaded with subtext. Unlike prior exercises, it doesn’t read as self-harm, it’s a quiet act of defiance that shows that she’s finally able to express what she wants and needs, and is free of the yoke of her husband, her family, and the man whose shadow has loomed over her life. It’s the icing on a twisted cake that never feels regurgitated from other genre projects and marks an indelible debut for Mirabella-Davis and another solid performance from Haley Bennett.
Swallow is currently playing the Berlin Final Girls Film Festival, and will be released theatrically and on VOD on March 6, 2020 from IFC Films.