Swallow | 2019 Tribeca Film Festival Review
Tough to Swallow, in a Good Way: Davis Offers Big Gulp Feminist Thriller
Carlo Mirabella Davis’ debut feature Swallow is a haunting study in gender politics in the guise of a squirm-inducing thriller. The film is held together by a gutsy premise: a beleaguered pregnant housewife reclaims ownership of her body—to her in-laws’ horror—by eating a collection of increasingly bizarre household knick-knacks. The psychology of Pica, a real-life disorder associated with pregnant women, is explored through an empathetic feminist lens. And though Swallow loses steam in its third act, the film’s well-defined characters and assured direction make this a memorable, perversely funny ride, with a poignant message to boot.
Hunter (a deft Haley Bennett, who won an award at Tribeca 2019 for her performance), is an anachronistic bob-haired housewife that starts off like a January Jones character from the ‘50s or ‘60s. Her husband Richie, (a detailed rendering by Austin Stowell), checks off a laundry list of male flaws: he’s a trust-fund baby, an unappreciative husband and a self-centered douche. As for Hunter’s in-laws—Richie’s helicopter parents, played by the delightfully insensitive Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche—they’re still very involved in their son’s life, which includes making decisions for their new daughter-in-law. Hunter’s defiant evolution is the film’s core: beginning with a marble, each trinket she inhales represents a step away from patriarchal repression, infuriating and confounding the feckless characters who surround her.
What follows is hard to digest (in a good way!): a crescendo of bloody stools, thankfully left to our imagination, and a trophy-like arrangement of discarded tchotchkes on Hunter’s bedside table. As Shrek would say, “Better out than in.” Richie’s parents hire a live-in nurse (hopelessly dour Laith Nakli) who, despite valiant efforts, can’t stop Hunter from snacking on thimbles. This part is hilarious: normally squeamish details morph into comedy—and Hunter never ceases to keep our interest, even when she’s munching on dirt. The film’s look suits her plight. Davis’s cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi employs the grey-blue austerity seen in Nocturnal Animals, here to more thoughtful effect: she turns Hunter’s lavish upstate retreat into an ominous, lonely dwelling.
Swallow is a film of tidy facades and ugly interiors. It’s a shame that this motif applies to the script as well: while Davis’s direction masterfully shows without telling, the film devolves in its final stretch into expositional therapy scenes. Yes, this backstory services an interesting twist, promoting Hunter’s character growth (and featuring an underused Denis O’Hare)—but it feels as if premise overshadowed potential rewrites. However: despite these few missteps, Swallow deserves attention. On its surface, it’s a satire. Deep down, it’s believable. Rather than relying on laughs, Davis and his cast play each unnerving moment with genuine authenticity—and deliver a full-course meal of cultural truths.