‘Swallow’, the tale of a pregnant woman ingesting dangerous objects, has been picking up buzz and awards on the film festival circuit – and it’s easy to see why. With his debut feature, writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis has crafted a polished tale of female empowerment framed inside an effective thriller about the perils of suburban life.
Hunter (Haley Bennett from ‘The Girl on the Train’) apparently has the perfect life. She lives in a beautiful house with her handsome rich husband (Austin Stowell) and a baby on the way. But, she’s not happy. Soon, she starts eating things she shouldn’t, and we’re not talking stilton and shellfish. Her cravings are for marbles, batteries and sharp objects that make her bleed even as she tries to ingest them.
Before long she has a nice collection of the contraband that’s made its way through her digestive tract. But her secret is rumbled when an ultrasound reveals more than just a foetus in her growing belly. She is diagnosed with pica – a psychological condition which sees people ingesting non-nutritious items – and sent off to a therapist to be ‘fixed’. Pica is the kind of ailment you’d imagine featuring heavily in a David Cronenberg movie and it’s the perfect fodder for a horror.
But by giving us a medical answer for Hunter’s behaviour – it turns out to be a reaction to her toxic environment rather than a form of body dysmorphia – Mirabella-Davis shifts our focus away from her bad diet and on to Hunter’s in-laws as the real villains of the piece.
Mirabella-Davis’s direction is confident, yet subtle, lingering on a wide shot where the focus is a tiny pin or a close-up of Bennett a beat too long. But it is his tightly structured script which really makes ‘Swallow’ powerful. Each word feels individually chosen to intensify the drama – with the silences in between just as telling. On one occasion, when a creepy colleague of her husband asks for a hug, she allows it, even though it’s clear his motives are off. There are few words to the scene, but the sigh she emits as she lays her head on his shoulder speaks of her need for any kind of human contact.
The cast of ‘Swallow’ is small. Denis O’Hare delivers a heart-stopping performance as Hunter’s unlikely father figure, but this is Bennett’s show. She is luminous and her journey from beautiful, broken housewife to clear-headed woman, grabbing handfuls of soil from a parking lot to snack on later, is thrilling. It’s a role you can imagine a young Isabelle Huppert playing, and there’s no higher praise than that. Greer McNally