Stepford malaise: ‘SWALLOW’ director tests filmgoers’ minds more than stomachs

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

Have you ever imagined the feeling of gulping down wood nails?

The trailer for IFC Films’ Swallow, written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, forces the thought. It’s enough to queasily shake your hands and send you in the opposite direction, especially when The Girl on the Train actor Haley Bennett starts picking random items around her character’s house to consume them like they’re Lucky Charms.

As unnerving as it sounds, Mirabella-Davis’ feature directorial debut is not quite the horrific indie drama that you may think it is. More crippling terror is living underneath the surface that hints at genuine issues going on in the world. As all great psychological horror does, Swallow has implicit text below the explicit content that broadens the scope of its twisted and tragic narrative.

The story follows Bennett’s porcelain housewife character Hunter. Like she’s living in a 1950s male fantasy, Hunter’s primary concerns are window dressings in their architectural palace and what her wealthy husband, Richie (Austin Stowell), wants for dinner. Through her moments of reflection (and Mirabella-Davis’ camera and editing style), you can gather that there’s more to Hunter than we know.

The breadcrumbs begin to fall when she becomes pregnant and develops an inexplicable compulsion to eat things like marbles, chess pieces and thimbles. Her burgeoning addiction becomes significantly more difficult to blanket when sharper objects like thumbtacks and nails show up on the menu.

Swallow is a smartly crafted film that weaves deeper meanings with its occasionally gross-out moments. However, weaker stomachs shouldn’t worry too much. There are a few scenes that’ll put you on the edge of losing your lunch, but the more sickening aspects are the larger truths the film reveals about power, ignorance, trauma and mental health. Mirabella-Davis easily could have colored his ideas in black and white, but there are more sumptuous shades that enter the mental lexicon.

Haley Bennett, left, and filmmaker Carlo Mirabella-Davis attend the ‘SWALLOW’ screening during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival at SVA Theater on April 28, 2019 in New York City. (Source: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images North America)

In a recent interview, Mirabella-Davis said, “filmmaking is about elevating subtext.” Highlighting advice from his film school teacher, he added: “What would be the subcutaneous meaning in every scene? What’s rippling beneath the surface? And how can you illuminate that through the details, camera direction, style, colors and performances? Every little piece of filmmaking is storytelling, right down to the coffee cup a character is drinking out of.”

To illustrate this statement, Mirabella-Davis spoke of his collaboration with cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi, who also worked in the camera department on such films as It Comes at Night and Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Dune adaptation. The conversations between the filmmakers focused on the rigid camera vernacular for Swallow.

“We begin the film with a lot of locked-down shots where Hunter is lost in the frame. From there, we would break those established rules at key emotional and psychological moments of clarity. If you pay close attention, you might notice that [Arizmendi] introduces a handheld approach at a critical juncture in the plot. Suddenly, we see beautifully composed close-ups of Hunter having an intimate moment with one of the objects, which pulls us into her internal cosmology,” Mirabella-Davis said.

The film’s intentions are for audiences to (of course) see it but also discuss the themes afterward. The interactive process involves the viewer’s picking apart why Hunter does what she does and how the family responds. As a writer, the ultimate challenge for Mirabella-Davis was to anchor the disparate elements you might be interested in investigating by constructing a robust psychological arc for the central character.

“I’m obsessed with psychology and how we can be explored in film. If you have a character who’s nuanced (and I tried very hard to make Hunter a complex character) and has a conscious and unconscious mind, then that will ground the audience on the journey the story goes on,” Mirabella-Davis said, before adding that the other crucial element is to have an actor who can bring the audience into the story’s world with heart and authenticity.

In the film, Bennett delivers a tour de force performance. As Hunter, Bennett has the capacity to tap into the cathedral of the character’s soul instantaneously.

“Through the micro machinations of her face and line delivery, [Bennett] creates someone who the audience can have problems with, which then allows us to explore a lot of issues and (hopefully) make them feel grounded,” Mirabella-Davis said.

Haley Bennet as “Hunter” in Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ ‘SWALLOW.’ Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films Release.

In addition to Bennett’s work, one of the fascinating aspects of the film is how Mirabella-Davis sprinkles moments of tension throughout his narrative to break the calm waters. A scene could ease you into the setting, then, suddenly, Hunter can be seen aggressively vacuuming the carpet or sketching interior designs. Arizmendi closes-in on the action, while the previous shots were widened out. Not only does the camera elevate the subtle suspense, but the sound effects are punched up like something sinister is on the brink of an outbreak.

“There’s always this dance. We’re establishing some version of regular life and shattering it with bursts of danger. We often thought of the film as being a perfect pane of glass with a crack slowly forming in it,” Mirabella-Davis said.

One such example is the decorating of the house. Hunter is furnishing the home for a wealthy and controlling patriarchal family. She wants to decorate it in such a way that pleases them. Her real tastes, however, emerge in the corners of the house, like placing a red gel over her baby’s room window. It’s a primal choice that slides into the more sterilized world that her parents-in-law expect.

“I like seeing the cracks in the mask on the actors’ faces. There’s a great moment when her mother-in-law asks Hunter if she’s happy. She responds that she is, but her face says otherwise. [Bennett] holds this fracturing smile that’s deeply chilling if you’re tuned into the conflicts within her,” Mirabella-Davis said.

Swallow is an intriguing story of a traumatized individual being told how to live. As the story progresses, that character begins to become aware of how insidious the world that she’s been absorbed into is. Her titular condition, an eating disorder known as Pica, catalyzes for Hunter to find her true self and reclaim control over her body that her family is using as a vessel.

Discover even more understanding and interpretations of the film by catching it this weekend at the Texas Theater in Oak Cliff and the Grand Berry Theater in Fort Worth.

Nationwide: The film is playing in select theaters and is available to rent on iTunes, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu and Xbox.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.