As the spread of coronavirus continues to halt the release of new movies in theaters, Vulture’s film critics will be sporadically reconsidering the movies available to stream from home instead.
The first time Hunter (Haley Bennett) swallows something she shouldn’t, it’s framed like an act of communion. Or as though she’s been briefly touched by the divine, the silence of the empty house around her replaced by distant sounds of a seaside where a child is at play. The object of her fixation is a marble that she picks out from a display case as though called to it and that she holds up to the light before contemplatively putting it in her mouth and then, finally, gulping it down. Afterward, she has the quiet glow of someone who’s accomplished something — which, in a warped way, she has. She’s disrupted the placid surface of her existence, which otherwise involves days spent in picturesque solitude while her husband, Richie (Austin Stowell), is at work. Their Hudson River Valley home enfolds her like protective casing while she gestates what he and his family clearly think of as his, not their, child.
But she’s only striving to keep up that appearance of mint condition. Swallow, the impressive first scripted feature from Carlo Mirabella-Davis, is about a case of pica, a psychological disorder that involves urges to eat nonfood items and that can be triggered by pregnancy as well as by stress. In that sense, it’s a horror film, because the things that Hunter feels compelled to consume in secret are increasingly disturbing. There is, for instance, a thumbtack, which doesn’t go down easily and which, we’re reminded by a later glimpse of blood in the bathroom, has likely done damage all the way through her digestive system before making a wince-worthy exit. Swallow isn’t body horror in the Cronenberg sense, but it is about the horrors a body can prove capable of, especially for someone trying to maintain an image of unruffled perfection that leads her to donning gloves to remove the evidence of her illicit habit from the toilet bowl.
It’s the setup for a portrait of a breakdown, for an installment of that venerable, sadism-inflected mini-genre that is the portrait of a woman coming undone, often in isolation. And Hunter is, frequently, alone in that tasteful mid-century-modern house — until a nurse (Laith Nakli) is hired to guard her, or at least guard the fetus she’s carrying, from her own compulsions. In her vintage-esque outfits, Hunter feels unstuck in time, like a representative of any number of women across decades who’ve been deemed unworthy caretakers of their own bodies. She slowly splinters under a bombardment of casual slights from her husband and his family.
But the quiet astonishment of Swallow comes from the fact that it actually turns out not to be about a breakdown but a breakthrough. It’d be wrong to say that Hunter’s pica saves her, but it does force her to awaken from the numb passivity with which she’s been drifting through life, grounding her more and more in her own fallible, fecund flesh. Swallow begins dreamlike, with its main character moving behind the giant windows of the house like she’s been sealed up inside a terrarium. But realism creeps in as it goes along, as Hunter’s secret comes out, as she shifts from being a kind of archetype of a suppressed spouse and becomes a fully fledged character with a background that offers some understanding of how she ended up where she is. Her habit of introducing foreign things into her body parallels her slowly dawning realization that there’s something already inside her that she doesn’t want there.
There’s this conversation that flares up every few months online about the term “elevated horror,” which has been understandably criticized for implying that there’s such a thing as “regular horror” that’s lesser than and not worth taking seriously. But a film like Swallow makes a case for the need for some sort of label, maybe a less loaded alternative, to signal that something’s scares aren’t of the traditional sort. There’s a type of devoted fan who wouldn’t consider Swallow horror at all, though that’s what it is, at heart. It’s about a woman sleepwalking toward doom, even if that doom doesn’t involve the supernatural or a knife-wielding slasher. Swallow shares commonalities with The Invisible Man, another recent movie about a woman in a controlling marriage that offers a more standard type of thrill — both films are suddenly available to watch in our homes, with some help from the coronavirus. But while The Invisible Man was built around its clever set pieces rather than its characters, Swallow is led by its protagonist’s mental and emotional state. It takes place in a landscape that’s largely internal — but that’s territory that can be just as filled with darkness and dread as a forbidding mansion.
Swallow hit theaters on March 6 but is available to rent on iTunes and Prime.