by Kayla McCulloch on Mar 13, 2020

A stultified woman stands on the deck outside her lavish home on a gorgeous estate overlooking a tranquil body of water. A man, sharply dressed and impossibly handsome, comes over and rests a hand on her back. Despite the stunning view and her evident privilege, she looks miserable. It's a setup that has served as the framework for countless psychological thrillers about toxic relationships, ranging from seminal noir My Name Is Julia Ross (1945) to the schlocky Julia Roberts vehicle Sleeping with the Enemy (1991) to Blumhouse’s latest hit, The Invisible Man (2020). It’s a gripping premise, to be sure. Stereotypically, one would assume that a perfect husband, an idyllic marriage, and a luxurious house would be more than enough to satisfy a traditional housewife. Like the canonized entries that came before it, Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow challenges this assumption and stomps all over it.

There’s something strange about the couple featured in Swallow, the Conrads. Husband Richie (Austin Stowell), a handsome businessman who inherited his power and wealth from his father (David Rasche), appears to have it all: the job, the money, and the wife. Hunter (Haley Bennett), Richie’s lovely spouse, should feel blessed to be a part of it. It’s something her mother-in-law (Elizabeth Marvel) reminds her often. (You can’t blame her, though — surely her husband’s mother did the same decades prior.) If mom and dad are the reigning power, then Richie and Hunter are the prince and princess. It only makes sense that they’d need to provide a future heir to the family’s business dynasty. Richie is appropriately enthusiastic at the news of his wife’s pregnancy. She publicly beams with the smile she’s likely spent hours practicing in the mirror, but she weeps in private as Richie spreads the news. “We’re pregnant,” he declares, as if harboring their gestating child is a task they will share.

In reality, Hunter knows her baby-to-be is just another domineering force keeping her exactly where she’s at — if she wasn’t locked in for life before, she definitely is now. Control over her body, possibly the last shred of autonomy she had, is now just another asset of her husband’s. That is, until one afternoon when Richie’s mom brings Hunter a self-help book geared toward pregnant women. It’s handed over with a certain reverence, almost as though it’s a family heirloom instead of a bible of banal truisms. Hunter’s mother-in-law tells her that she read it when she was pregnant with Richie, only adding to the ceremony of it all. Still, she gives the book a chance. “Surprise yourself every day,” it reads. So, on a whim, Hunter swallows a marble. Turns out, even when you’re suffocating, there’s always room for one more gulp. She swiftly discovers a compulsion called pica: an insatiable desire to eat materials that have no nutritional value whatsoever. It typically starts with something harmless like ice or paper, but Hunter’s cravings lean more toward increasingly dangerous objects.

Of the main cast, Haley Bennett undoubtedly delivers the best performance. This is no easy task, especially considering the dark absurdity of the premise and the unapologetically serious tone of the film. Not to dismiss the film’s trio of secondary performances, but Bennett’s execution of this main role does a superb job of embodying the profoundly unusual feel of Swallow. (If not for the film’s direct-to-VOD fate, it’s possible the role might have propelled the actress back into the public eye.) However, this diametric opposition — Hunter’s peculiarity juxtaposed with the humorless scolds that make up her world — establishes some rickety footing from the start. Although there are certainly countless examples of effective fish-out-of-water films, there’s always a sense that something deep inside Swallow’s inner workings was never fully fleshed out. It was perhaps inevitable that the foundation would eventually crumble when it was never properly fortified in the first place.

Somewhere around the middle of the second act, Swallow really begins to struggle. Blame it on the all-around flimsiness of Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ dialogue, the uneven tone that whiplashes from sickening surreality to bland self-importance, or the script’s lack of commitment to its central conceit, but there comes a time where Swallow feels like a completely different film than the one it initially presented. Unfortunately for Mirabella-Davis, this change of course around the midpoint results in a feature that isn’t nearly as palatable. It maintains the dainty visuals and the stilted presentation that was so appetizing initially, but these frills are not nearly enough to make the film’s curiosity-tugging games as compelling as they were at the outset. It doesn’t help that Mirabella-Davis’ screenplay and direction grow increasingly didactic as the film progresses, taking a subtle message about autonomy and slowly turning up the dial until it’s impossible to hear anything else. It’s unfortunate, too — what could have potentially been a future cult classic quickly devolves into something that’s only passably amusing.

In fairness, Swallow gets plenty of mileage out of its initial hook. With several short films under Mirabella-Davis’ belt, the filmmaker’s debut demonstrates a distinctive artistry honed over a decade of smaller-scale work. Truthfully, Mirabella-Davis’ experience with shorts might explain why Swallow chokes around the midpoint and transitions from a tense parable about sovereignty to an unremarkable revenge thriller — despite a clear voice and singular guise, it seems that he still has some work to do when it comes to crafting a consistently engrossing narrative. It’ll be interesting to see where he heads next, but Swallow probably won’t stand alongside the films that influenced it. Still, given its confident style and an outstanding performance from Bennett, Swallow is worth trying (even if it’s just a taste).

Rating: C

Swallow is now available to rent from major online platforms.