The horrors of suburban regularity and desperation are put on full display in Dean Kapsalis’ gorgeous tragedy, The Serve.
Holly a middle-aged soccer mom leads a boring life of drudgery. Her husband and kids expect her to cook, clean, and care for them constantly without even a thank you. Their home life is the picture of 1950’s America only she also holds down a full-time job. When a particularly difficult dinner with her parents and her vicious sister goes a step too far she takes a drive late at night. That drive leads her down a terrible path of dangerous decisions and deadly consequences. Before the drive, she finds a mouse in her immaculate kitchen. That discovery causes extreme insomnia which likely led to The Swerve’s painful final act.
The film opens and closes on Holly’s anguished face. Skye is The Swerve. She delivers a performance so chilling in its bone-deep sadness it is difficult to not be affected by it. Her Holly is brittle. Stretched to her breaking point long before we meet her. Without the fragile tension, she infuses in every scene The Swerve would not have the impact it does. A doting mother and wife she tries to keep everything together in her house, for her family, and at her job where she is a high school teacher.
It is Azura Skye(Holly) who dominates the film. All of the focus is on her narrow shoulders and she carries the load effortlessly. Her Holly is so beaten down it is uncomfortable to watch. As things unwind and her behavior becomes even more erratic and dangerous there is a hard edge to her performance that dares the viewer to look away. You are afraid she will get caught and equally afraid she won’t be. It’s like the car wreck she causes. It’s an inevitable slow-motion disaster waiting to happen and you can’t look away. Skye who is no stranger to genre series and movies has a long list of quality work from 28 Days Later to American Horror Story, and a personal guilty pleasure Riverdale. This is easily her best work.
The cacophony of everyday life is deafening especially when no one hears your voice over the noise. Holly is underappreciated and overworked. She has completely lost her ability to affect change in her world and fights depression daily. Dean Kapsalis’ screenplay is painfully beautiful in its intensity. The Swerve is an extremely intimate look at mental illness and toxic relationships.
Writer/Director Dean Kapsalis has an uncanny ability to focus all of the attention on Holly and not have it sway into male-gazing territory. No one in this film, save a sweet high school boy, is completely innocent. Kapsalis makes no excuses for anyone. Holly’s children are inconsiderate shits, her husband is a gaslighting monster, and her sister is an insecure snake, intent on bullying her way to any power she can grab. Holly is equally naked before the audience. She suffers from crippling mental illness and her actions especially in the final act are horrific, but Kapsalis forces the audience to see her for what she is.
This movie is disturbing in its simplicity. Holly is depressed and to be fair, this film isn’t so much about depression as what terrible things people do to each other. Either passively by not caring or actively by manipulation and cheating.
It isn’t just the men who live with her who are detrimental. Her parents and sister are vile, cruel people who bestow equal parts acid and undeserved excuses. It’s a hazardous cocktail of dysfunction that has led both sisters to struggle with mental illness. Holly’s beautiful but ruthless sister Claudia is played by Ashley Bell of The Last Exorcism. She is nearly unrecognizable in both performance and look.
The Swerve is a patient movie where everything is designed to make you squirm. For example, there is an extended scene of Holly cutting apples in the second half of the movie that puts the viewer so on edge I found myself holding my breath. Writer/ Director Dean Kapsalis is so confident in his vision and the magnetic energy of Skye that he allows moments like this to linger knowing they will create uncomfortable anticipation that can’t be avoided.
Sound work by Coll Anderson and his team is phenomenal. Especially in the final act. Every clink of a fork and jaw grind is a gut punch. The use of wind chimes is smartly used to create a confusing mood of dissonance. Wind chimes should be soothing but bring only jarring confusion.
The distinctly female-centric The Swerve is not horror in the classic sense, but rather the horror that lurks behind well-manicured yards, and nails, and perfectly decorated homes. Kapsalis manages to keep the film from veering into a victim-blaming space and allows Holly to be as raw as she is. This is a daring film that is difficult to watch but worth seeing. Trigger warning necessary though, this film is not for those suffering from depression themselves. The horrors are far too real.
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As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.