It’s called pica, and it involves wanting to consume things that most folks would consider completely inedible. You might have heard it mentioned on TV, or come across it in an article on psychological disorders. Hunter Conrad (Haley Bennett) has no knowledge of the phenomenon whatsoever; it’s not something that she would conceive of in a million years. All this young woman knows is that her husband Richie (Austin Stowell) is handsome and successful, their house could have come out of a modern-deco magazine spread, money is not an issue, and their life is good. This is what Hunter is told, again and again. Their life is good.
Except…well, she feels a little alienated from it all. More than a little alienated, in fact. She wanders around their gorgeous abode, dressed like a 1950s housewife — her wardrobe seems like an endless array of vintage swing dresses and heels, all June Cleaver chic — while waiting for her husband to come home from work. Hunter seems slightly distant, as if she’s fading away, or maybe one casserole away from going full Stepford. When Hunter gets the news that she’s expecting, it doesn’t really feel like it’s hers (“We’re pregnant!” Richie says to everyone). Nothing feels like it is hers. Not the home, not the clothes, not the marriage. Not her life.
So one day, while trembling on the edge of an existential panic, Hunter looks down at a red marble she’s holding in her hand and…she swallows it. It’s a pleasant sensation. Later, she “retrieves” and cleans the object. This is Hunter’s little secret. It is hers. She places the marble on a tray. Soon, it will be joined by more “special” objects, like a push-pin, a rock, a thimble, a lock, a chess piece, the upper half of a porcelain figurine….
An eerie empowerment parable embedded in a domestic horror movie (or is it the other way around?), Swallow premiered at last year’s Tribeca film festival, where it nabbed Bennett a much-deserved Best Actress award and spent the remainder of 2019 worming its way around the genre-fest circuit. IFC Films slipped it into theaters for a brief run earlier this month before pivoting it to a number of V.O.D. and purchase-to-stream services — the fact that it happened to hit them just as people found themselves in need of a lot of home-viewing options is, obviously, a coincidence. But this is where folks have begun to discover writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ shocking, and shockingly good, portrait of an unraveling, and you don’t have to suffer from this compulsion to feel like it’s a horror movie for our collectively helpless moment — its currency is a loss of control. The timing somehow feels right to dip into this DSM-friendly thriller, provided you have the stomach for it. This is not an easy watch. There is, however, a lot to chew on here.
To invoke “empowerment” is not to suggest that Swallow is a pro-pica movie. It doesn’t try to sell the disorder as something positive or fun. The fact that Hunter initially derives joy from ingesting any number of inanimate objects that are most definitely not meant to be eaten isn’t an endorsement. Nor does the movie shy away from the consequences — you will see a toilet splattered with blood. (If you’re still reading this after that last sentence, you have our respect and our deepest sympathies.) When her secret is eventually discovered, Richie and his parents — played with perfect aristocratic condescension and remove by Elisabeth Marvel and Veep‘s David Rasche — immediately send her to a psychiatrist. They also assign an in-house “nurse” to watch Hunter and frisk her before she goes to the bathroom. It’s for her own good, naturally. But more importantly (to them), she is the picture-perfect wife who’s carrying the family heir, after all.
And that’s where Swallow once again reminds you that this woman is not only feeling disconnected from her world, she’s also being quietly suffocated by the roles she’s expected to play. For the film’s first half, Mirabella-Davis, cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi and a kick-ass production design team make everything seem colorful, luxurious and below-zero cold. The dresses are uniforms. The house is a deluxe prison. Hunter is paraded around and embarrassed by her spouse, a show pony he nudges into telling a humiliating anecdote from her childhood. (She doesn’t get to finish it, because her father-in-law interrupts her.) Richie’s mom criticizes her hair. A business-associate creep demands a hug; she ends up needing that intimate moment, but it’s still this dude’s go-to party trick. She can pick out drapes, but can’t control her fate — and “control” is what Hunter gets out of this compulsion, extreme measures or not. Her body, her consumption of a miniature screwdriver, her choice.
The cryptic quality of Swallow‘s first two-thirds is what lends the movie its inherent sense of unshakable creepiness and unnerving wooziness, as well as keeps things just south of being sensationalized. When a potential reason for the affliction is revealed, the film slowly loses its power over you; it’s hard not to feel like you’ve gone from David Lynch to Lifetime-movie-with-benefits. But the switcheroo is necessary, in that connects one trauma to another, and ties a possible reclamation of a crime to a slightly more benign take-back. Misogyny is a monster with many faces, a lot of them normal. It’s the same central conceit behind the recent Invisible Man remake, which also uses a horror-movie format to comment on the evil that men do and the ways women inevitably suffer because of it. The two movies do feel like kindred spirits, though Swallow may be the more subversive of the pair. It ends with a moment of closure that feels both freeing and like the equivalent of a slap. And as a number of women walk in and out of the frame before the final fade-out, you realize that any one of them might be just like Hunter. Maybe even all of them.