Travis Leamons // Film Critic
AUSTIN – The days of Donna Reed seeing her husband off to work with a kiss and a smile may seem like a stale TV dinner reminder of 1950s domestic bliss. But it feels alarmingly contemporary in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s provocative feature debut, SWALLOW.
Haley Bennett is Hunter, a prim newlywed whose idyllic life resembles that of a domesticated housewife. She’s got a perfect life, living in a beautiful home in upstate New York with her gorgeous, blue blood husband, Richie (Austin Stowell). He was Hunter’s winning lottery ticket, freeing her from a neglectful middle-class family and into a lifestyle befitting her grace and charm.
Spending her days alone in the architectural marvel that is their home, Hunter cleans, plays games on her iPhone, and makes small changes to the decor as she waits for Richie to return home after a hard day at the office. As the days grow longer and isolation sets in, Hunter begins to change. It begins ever so slightly after she becomes pregnant.
Her in-laws take the news in magnanimous fashion, pampering her with doctor recommendations and reading materials. They think they know what’s best for Hunter and the baby to come, but no one ever stops to listen to what Hunter wants or has to say. She knows she’ll never be able to meet such impossibly high standards. Hunter’s merely pretending, too timorous to cause trouble.
But when a passage from a self-help pregnancy book suggests to Hunter to try something new, she decides to act upon a craving: the urge to swallow random household objects. The disorder is known as pica. It causes Hunter to consume things that shouldn’t be ingested – a marble here, a thumbtack there – with each new experience, more unusual than the last. It’s a coping mechanism, Hunter’s way to gain some measure of control, even if it means sabotaging the pregnancy.
Once her disorder is uncovered, Richie becomes more overbearing and his parents more evil and controlling. They do what most rich people do: throw money at a problem and hope it goes away. The family just wants what’s best for the baby.
SWALLOW’s intriguing premise could have easily turned exploitive with the body horror of ingesting and removing small objects. Instead, Mirabella-Davis isn’t out to shock. The swallowing episodes are more implicit than flashy, plus their inclusion in this unconventional thriller is to elevate a character study about female oppression and the circumstances responsible.
Bennett (THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, THE RED SEA DIVING RESORT), who rightfully was bestowed top acting honors at the Tribeca Film Festival, is masterful. The film succeeds chiefly because of her performance. Beneath the coifed hairdo and porcelain veneer is a woman that causes ripples in mood with the slightest movements. Bennett’s acting and Mirabella-Davis direction push us out of our comfort zone with an uncomfortable subject and an unexpected twist when Hunter finally breaks out of her residential prison. It is a controversial move that may be hard for some to stomach, but the filmmaker is fearless in his decision. Mirabella-Davis is making a strong statement about modern femininity and high-class marriage, and how women are still supposed to birth babies and stay home while their husbands prosper.
SWALLOW is not THE HANDMAID’S TALE or a 1950s TV re-run. It is raw and visceral and worthy of conversation. I want people to see Mirabella-Davis’s debut in the worst possible way. He tackles the subject of oppression head-on, principally inspired by his grandmother’s debilitating hand-washing OCD. She was institutionalized by her husband and given a partial lobotomy and electroshock therapy in an effort to stop the habit. A different disorder than what Hunter goes through, but both have the same systemic problem: the patriarchy, and the manners in which it controls women’s bodies. Bennett responded so strongly to the story and its intent that she signed on as an executive producer and also its star.
Visually alluring (thanks to the filmmaking team – mostly women) and an incredible leading performance, Mirabella-Davis has crafted such a resplendent revelation that one wonders where he goes from here. SWALLOW is a challenging film with a subject that is sure to make stomachs churn. The film speaks openly and has plenty to say. Hopefully, people will listen.
IFC Films will be releasing SWALLOW theatrically in 2020.