SWALLOW (directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, 94 minutes, USA, 2019)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Swallow, the directorial debut by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, stars Haley Bennett as Hunter, a timid, blue collar woman who has married into a wealthy, overbearing family. Hunter spends her days cloistered in newfound luxury, decorating the exquisite home gifted by her husband and in-laws, who pressure her into a pregnancy she is at best ambivalent about. Katelin Arizmendi’s sublime cinematography imbues Hunter’s antiseptic surroundings with an almost otherworldly quality. Desperately searching for a way to take back control of her life, Hunter soon comes down with pica, a psychological disorder that compels you ingest non-edible things. She begins swallowing small objects around the house — a thumb tack, a marble, a battery — keeping them as trophies marking some strange form of accomplishment, that is until her husband discovers her hobby during a routine sonogram.
The film employs Hunter’s lack of agency and resulting mental illness as a metaphor for society’s need to control the female body. Despite the weighty theme, Haley Bennett manages to give her character a satisfying emotional arc as she embarks on a rather dark, yet enlightening journey of self-discovery. It’s the kind of unexpectedly layered performance that in a much more conventional narrative would be showered with accolades, but unfortunately the film’s dark subject matter will likely overshadow Haley’s daring work here.
Swallow explores the complexities of mental illness, abortion and rape with an empathy and humanity rarely afforded to these subjects in contemporary cinema. Hunter is so many things, but she’s never played for a victim or a fool. It’s a brilliant debut from Mirabella-Davis, spotlighting a new approach to narrative and character development. Hunter’s plight is portrayed not as an object of pity or morbid fascination, but as a stormy voyage to self-actualization. In the process, Mirabella-Davis sets a high bar for whatever he decides to do next.