Festivals

Swallow

{Final Girls Berlin Film Fest}Movie Review-Swallow Is A Grotesque And Gorgeous Look At A New Kind Of Horror

The only thing more terrifying than the mind is a controlling husband in the fiercely bold Swallow starring Hunter Bennett.

The psychological thriller written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis in his feature film debut is stunning. It is exquisite pain. Swallow is the type of film that creeps up on you. Picturesque sets, pure All-American beauties, and a near-perfect color palette lull the viewer into a false sense of comfort. It’s not long before the wheels come off and the cringing begins.

Quickly it becomes very clear there is something wrong with Hunter and her Stepford life. Quickly things disintegrate and her idyllic life is shown to be anything but ideal. Swallow is a well-paced slow burn that never feels slow. It simply feels like a plodding walk to a terrible fate you willingly chose. Tense and laden with messages subliminal and otherwise, Swallow is a grasping view of a woman on the edge. It is as difficult as it is important to watch. By the final unflinching conclusion, it’s clear resolution is not the purpose. To that end, it is a fantastic example of women’s horror.

Swallow is the story of Hunter a pretty, newly pregnant wife and her desperate battle with PICA. PICA can be a dangerous condition that causes the afflicted to eat things that are not food. It can be something simple like dirt or as dangerous as sharp or poisonous objects. This condition can be caused by a vitamin deficiency or a psychological issue. Hunter’s condition is not fully explained but it certainly is implied.

Her life is no longer her own and maybe never was. Without giving too much away Hunter’s behavior becomes more and more erratic as she eats one dangerous thing after another. The camera never shies away from what she is doing or the unpleasant side effects. It is the sort of film that crawls under your skin and forces you to examine your own life. Swallow dares you to look away.

Swallow Hailey Bennett
Courtesy of IFC Films

Cinematography by Katelin Arizmendi provides a women’s touch the film needs. This is serious material that needs camera work that reflects the vulnerability and strength inherently in women. Working in concert with Davis, Arizmendi allows entire sequences to linger on Bennett doing some extremely disturbing things. She captures the horror of Hunter’s life without becoming gimmicky. That is no small task given the plot which could easily skew into cheap shock territory.

Davis’ rumination on the female condition never wades into an exploitative space, despite both the male domination seen in the story and the allure of star Haley Bennett(Hunter). Bennett delivers a star-making performance. Her Hunter is a kaleidoscope of warring emotions and motivations. She is a complex character with more than a few struggles. The small cast relies heavily on Bennett to carry the film. Equal parts meek and passive-aggressive she mesmerizes the viewer with every bewildered look and teary shout. Her confusion is matched only by the terrible peace she finds in the clink of metal against tooth. That utter devotion creates scenes that are disturbing and painful to watch.

That isn’t to say the rest of the cast is ineffective just that Bennett’s commitment is absolutely necessary. Austin Sowell(Richie) is the perfect controlling, doting only when he wants to be, husband. Richie is the stereotypical rich white guy. He has very little control at work and his parents control everything in his personal life. As a result, he needs Hunter to allow him absolute control at home. He is slick sliminess and the absolute worst sort of guy with even worse friends. He doesn’t want a partner so much as a pretty Barbie maid to rule.

Elizabeth Marvel who plays his mother is icy domination. Her work as the villainous Major in Manifest is just a side step away from Richie’s nasty mother. Manipulation is her weapon of choice. Hunter is a mouse in a nest of vipers and in way over her head. A small cameo from American Horror Story favorite Dennis O’Hare is a perfect cap to Hunter’s story. His performance is a masterclass in subtle menace. Laith Nakli is a standout as Luay. He is part nurse and part prison guard who exhibits a surprising amount of tenderness. He is one of the few people who cares for Hunter.

The thoughtful film challenges the viewer at every turn to question their ideas of female perfection. Commercials for beauty products play in the background while Hunter scurries around trying to be the perfect housewife. She cooks, cleans, and gardens in fit and flare skirts and twin sets with matching heals. Her sole role in her new marriage is to be quiet, placid, stylish, and a subservient. It is a look at 1950’s housewives through a modern lens. This is a view of womanhood that still persists today. Controlled by money, power, and circumstance Hunter could be any woman and every woman.

As much power as women have claimed there is still a lot of work to do. Davis puts that on full display without becoming preachy. This is a horrific look at what it can be like to collapse under the weight of expectations. It is not a typical horror film but rather part of a new breed of psychological thrillers. Films like this are important because they are thought-provoking and emotionally weighty. Horror comes in many forms and some of them are grossly unexpected. That surprising space is where genius can be found. Swallow plays today at Final Girls Berlin Film Fest and you can catch it in theaters and VOD on March 6th, 2020.

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