REVIEW: “Swallow” (2020)

SWALLOWposter“Swallow” is a frustrating movie that by the end will be seen as a battle cry for some and completely off-putting to others. It’s listed as a psychological thriller but I’m not sure the movie does enough to earn that title. It certainly has some of those elements, but it could just as easily be called a domestic drama, body horror, a twisted black comedy, or an on-the-nose political allegory. This identity crisis ends up making the film as a whole a little too hard to (wait for it…) swallow.

“Swallow” is most effective when it focuses on the main character’s Stepford existence and its…unhealthy consequences. Haley Bennett plays Hunter, a young woman who seems to be living the good life. She’s married to Richie (Austin Stowell), the hunky son of a gazillionaire and heir to his father’s fortune. They live in a posh modernist home in upstate New York. To top it off, she finds out the two are having a baby. It’s a far cry from the working class world she grew up in.

I’m so lucky” she says to an inattentive Richie, trying harder to convince herself than her husband. Hunter is a testament to the idea that money can’t buy happiness, especially when the cost is your independence and agency. Her facade of bliss begins to breakdown and her loneliness becomes more pronounced. It becomes clear that she’s trapped in a world dictated by others, ensnared by their expectations and serving their needs.

The downside is that Richie is more of a one-note caricature than a flesh-and-blood human being. First-time director Carlo Mirabella-Davis (who also wrote the screenplay) isn’t much for subtlety or nuance. There is never an ounce of suspense when it comes to the paper-thin Richie or his motivations. His dastardly parents (David Rasche and Elizabeth Marvel) are even more glaringly villainous, checking off every predictable box. It would be fine if this were a straightforward satirical black comedy. But that’s not the movie’s aim so we are left with characters bordering on cartoonish.

As the patronizing and neglect start to take its toll, Hunter finds inspiration in these lines from a book: “Every day, try to do something unexpected. Push yourself to try new things.” She does. She begins swallowing things around the house starting with a marble and then a thumbtack. It gets worse from there. She may be mentally coming apart, but for the first time in her life she feels in control.

Swallow2

At times it’s hard to know how Mirabella-Davis wants us to feel. One minute he’s treating Hunter’s troubling new addiction as macabre and unsettling. Then we’ll get a scene or two where he plays it for laughs. Conversely it’s very clear how he wants us to feel about the pregnancy which is always portrayed negatively or forgotten altogether. It becomes more of a shameful plot device than a meaningful story thread.

It all culminates in a rushed final act where Hunter faces her current situation and past traumas. It leads to an iffy final shot that leaves a lot of questions but gives the movie an easy out. No spoilers here, but depending on where you land on certain things I can see the ending being interpreted as hopeful, tragic, or even repulsive. If you’re in with Mirabella-Davis’ convictions you’ll probably find it bold and liberating. If not you may see it as callous and appalling.

Almost lost in the film’s wobbly focus and dubious virtue is Katelin Arizmendi’s fabulous pastel-soaked cinematography and Haley Bennett’s quiet but forceful lead performance. “I just want to make sure I’m not doing anything wrong.” It may be the saddest line in the entire film and Bennett delivers it with such heartbreaking sincerity. It comes from a young woman so attuned to meeting the needs of others that she can’t even notice her own. If only “Swallow” had stuck with more of that.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

 

2-stars

18 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Swallow” (2020)

  1. I know you loved “The VVitch” (yes, that’s how you’re technically supposed to spell “The Witch”) and all, but I’m beginning to notice a pattern here of you giving negative reviews to more “arty” horror films as of late. First “The Lighthouse”, then “It Follows”, and now this film. I’m not saying that you necessarily disliked them because they were arty, of course, but still.

    • It’s an interesting observation. I do adore The Witch. I’m a big fan of The Babadook, It Comes at Night, Hereditary, etc. And The Lighthouse is fun because it’s some of the more “arty” elements that I like the most about it. I just thought it became really repetitive and lost its way. Swallow can’t seem to settle on what it wants to be. It has a message but it’s pretty messy trying to get to it.

  2. I watched a preview of Swallow and thought not for me when she picked up the marble. From what you’re saying, there is a context for it, but when I hear she is pregnant and swallows a tack, my thought is she needs psychiatric treatment/containment before she harms the innocent unborn baby. After reading your review I’m more convince than before to skip this one.

    • I’ll just say you are on the right track in terms of where this one ends up. The movie as a whole is pretty cold when it comes to the pregnancy. It leads to some things that is certain to be offputting to many.

  3. I’ve never seen this movie before, but I read your review. Sometimes I like reading reviews more than watching the actual movies, especially when they’re recent ones. I may check out Swallow one day; that’s an interesting plot line, Hunter swallowing things to feel in control of her life. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that plot before. But the director probably made the error of making the story too predictable, especially with the antagonists. I think antagonists have got to have some other emotions besides plain antagonism. Maybe Richie could have been domineering because his mother was a controlling parent, for instance. Then at least there would be a human element to his character.

    • Thanks for reading! The husbands and in-laws are really shallow. They basically have Hunter there to bow to their every whim. And you’re right, the mentally fractured wife resorting to swallowing things just to get a semblance of control is compelling. The movie is best when dealing with that side of her story. Unfortunately it comes unraveled as she tries to retake her life. SO rushed at the end and with a final scene that some will love, some will find repellent.

      • Yes, that rushed ending sounds about right for a new movie. 🙂 Even if there’s a compelling story line, there’s often poor directing and writing which can drag it down. Swallow sounds like it could have been good if it had been developed better.

  4. I had thoughts about seeing it as I do think Haley Bennett is an interesting actress as I’m glad she’s taking on some meaty roles. If it comes on TV, I’ll check it out.

    • Yep, it doesn’t have any idea what it wants to be and it doesn’t know how to pull off it’s ending. Good lead performance, horribly one-dimensional ‘bad guys’.

  5. Writing let this movie down. With a stronger script, Bennett would talked about so much more and the movie would be a must watch for everyone. We’re in the minority I believe, but the momentum isn’t there for this to be a zeitgeist movie.

    I was never fully behind the reasoning leap that the movie suggests in why Hunter starts swallowing things. No real connective tissue. This is the type of movie that should stick with a viewer, but I haven’t given it much thought after my view like I have with similar, better told, recent feminist movies like The Invisible Man and The Assistant.

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