Holly is not happy. It takes a while to understand exactly why this is so. In the flash-forward prelude to writer-director Dean Kapsalis’ debut feature, The Swerve, she is glimpsed driving her minivan through nocturnal suburban streets, looking very unwell: dead-eyed, pallid, and spattered with blood. In essence, the film tells the story of how this middle-age English teacher and mother of two arrived at such a distressing state. However, from the moment that the viewer first sees the “before” version of Holly – stirring awake in bed alongside her husband, on a morning like any other morning – it’s obvious that she is a profoundly miserable person. Her life has perhaps not turned out the way she imagined it would, but what gnaws at Holly goes much deeper than mere dissatisfaction or bourgeois ennui. She has become a ghost in her own life. At best, she is a doormat, eliciting low-key contempt even from her own family. At worst, she is completely invisible.
What bedevils Holly (Azura Skye) is acute yet ineffable, the 21st-century version of what feminist author Betty Friedan memorably described as “the problem that has no name.” Holly is, by any stretch, a catch: a devoted teacher, wife, and mother, with a caregiver’s inclination toward thoughtfulness. She is thin, blond, and conventionally attractive, and thus, by patriarchal logic, her life should be a cakewalk. Yet her daily routine seems to be an enervating slog of indignities and ingratitude. Her grocery-store manager husband, Rob (Bryce Pinkham), is small-minded and self-involved, forever fretting about money and the lack of recognition at his job. Teenage sons Paul (Taen Phillips) and Lee (Liam Seib) snap at her like she’s the hired help, when they bother to acknowledge her at all. The glassy-eyed students in her classroom seem utterly uninterested in her lessons on poetry and literature. She does not appear to have any friends or even any co-workers with whom she socializes. Her younger sister, Claudia (Ashley Bell), is a textbook trainwreck, a volatile addict who delights in casual cruelty and is given endless second chances by their parents. No one, it seems, is on Holly’s side.
One gets the distinct impression that something volatile has been building for years underneath Holly’s waxen façade. Despite the brave face that the character puts on every day, Skye portrays her as a visibly fragile and exhausted woman, a brittle twig wrapped in papery human skin. It’s only going to take a tiny push to send her hurtling over the edge. Appropriately enough, what precipitates Holly’s swift unraveling is the tiniest of things: a mouse that she discovers lurking in her kitchen. This unwelcome visitor – and Holly’s obsession with removing it from her home by any means necessary – sets off a chain of events that plunges her into a rapid downward spiral. The borders between her reality and her nightmares start to become distressingly fuzzy, but The Swerve isn’t really the story of an unreliable protagonist who is (maybe) losing her mind, in the vein of Repulsion (1965), Perfect Blue (1997), or Black Swan (2010). It’s more of a distaff version of Falling Down, one that fittingly flips the tone and style of Joel Schumacher’s dubious 1993 feature on its head. If that film was a garish, look-at-me public rampage, Kapsalis’ feature is a strangled scream into a pillow.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when things start to go irrecoverably wrong for Holly, but this ambiguity is integral to the film’s methods. It’s not just one thing, but a lot of little things – an accumulation of setbacks, miseries, and humiliations that pile up at a steady clip. There’s the mouse, of course, which Holly vainly attempts to bait with cheese-laden mousetraps and then rodenticide-laced peanut butter on crackers. The creature bites her hand as she’s fumbling for her shoes one morning, and the resulting wound becomes a compulsive focus for Holly, who scratches at it relentlessly as the blood continues to pool under her bandages. Rob is pulling for a promotion at the grocery store, and the 16-hour shifts he’s been working – as well as his own hapless desperation – have made him even more needy and irritable than usual. The long hours also provoke whispery suspicions of infidelity in Holly’s mind, exacerbated by her husband’s flirty ease with other women, including her sister. Then there’s the matter of her doe-eyed hunky student Paul (Zach Rand), from whom she confiscates a notebook filled with erotic sketches. For Holly, who never seems to get so much as a droplet of kindness or appreciation from anyone, Paul’s attentions become a troubling source of romantic and sexual vexation.
Things reach a tipping point during a tense dinner with Holly and Claudia’s parents (Deborah Hedwall and Dan Daily). Ostensibly a welcome-home affair to celebrate Claudia’s latest return from rehab, the evening devolves into a buffet of passive-aggressive humiliation for Holly, who is variously mocked and marginalized by her clueless family. (There are snide intimations throughout the film of Holly’s past battles with an eating disorder and other mental illnesses.) Finally fed up, she gets in her minivan and speeds off into the night, where she is randomly taunted and terrorized by a carload of drunks. To her horror, her attempts to evade her harassers result in a fatal crash for the other vehicle – or do they? Holly awakens the next morning convinced that she is responsible for the deaths of two men reported killed in a single-car accident. Granted, her own minivan doesn’t have a scratch on it, but the events of the previous night seemed so real … Her uncertainty about this disturbing incident further agitates a witch’s brew of anger, guilt, and paranoia that is slowly building to a boil.
The Swerve is not an easy film to categorize. It premiered at Chicago’s horror-leaning Cinepocalypse festival in June of last year, and it has elements in common with stifling psychological horror features such as Hour of the Wolf (1968), Dead Ringers (1988), and The Machinist (2004). Yet for all its clammy intimacy – the film hews rigorously to Holly’s possibly untrustworthy viewpoint – The Swerve never devolves into outright reality-melting madness. Although it contains one or two moments in which Holly is clearly hallucinating, Kapsalis’ film generally takes a realistic approach that underlines the banality of the character’s suffering. For many women, Holly’s travails will not feel extraordinary, which sharpens the tragedy of her story and deepens its aura of shrill-yet-silent despair. Despite the cultural and legal accomplishments of the second-wave feminism that Friedan kicked off – not to mention those of successive waves – countless women like Holly still feel unvalued, unappreciated, and unacknowledged. In a word, invisible. Kapsalis isn’t above underlining this point, but owing to the film’s broadly reserved style, its rare manic highs have a memorable horror-flick intensity. During one vivid scene, Holly vainly shrieks for her oblivious husband’s attention as she commits a frenzied public sex act. (“LOOK AT ME!”) No such luck: Even her most spectacular moments of self-destruction go unnoticed.
Kapsalis generally exhibits firm control over tone in The Swerve, keeping the film from spilling over into lurid 1990s thriller territory. The story feels at once modern and timeless, a fable suffused with more authentic angst than 20-plus seasons of Snapped, Oxygen’s “when women kill” true-crime series. The film does have its unfortunate excesses, however. The screenplay and the supporting performances at times drift needlessly into the grotesque, particularly in their portrayal of Holly’s family as cartoonishly insensitive and self-centered. (The characters often feel like half-baked refugees from a John Waters or Coen Brothers film, or perhaps Susan Seidelman’s 1989 satire She-Devil.) There’s also something a little icky about the quasi-idealized way that Kapsalis presents a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student who is, presumably, still a minor. Although Paul is portrayed as a naïve, lovestruck doofus and their extracurricular contact is limited to brief, unsavory encounters, the film also suggests that Paul is a legitimate source for the affection and affirmation that Holly deserves. (Holly herself seems more clear-eyed about the fact that giving her adolescent student a handjob in her minivan is abhorrent and probably criminal – indeed, that’s at least half the reason that she does it.)
Ultimately, The Swerve rests overwhelmingly on Skye’s slender shoulders. Her fantastically brittle and anguished performance is what elevates Kapsalis’ feature from a sharp little psychological thriller into a genuinely haunting character study. Despite a long résumé that includes prolific work in film and television – she is probably best known for her roles on Zoe, Duncan, Jack & Jane (1999-2000), and CSI: Miami (2003-05) – Skye has never had a starring vehicle quite like The Swerve. Her portrayal of Holly is the kind of turn that makes such an immediate and indelible impression that one can’t imagine anyone else in the role. She makes the character compellingly sympathetic but not saintly, pitiable but not admirable. Holly is, in a word, basic, but she is still worthy of love, dignity, and happiness. It’s Skye’s performance that makes The Swerve a harrowing experience, in the best possible way. The viewer can’t help but feel every dribble of shame, frustration, and suffocating agony that Holly experiences as she plummets into the abyss.
The Swerve is now available to rent from major online platforms.