The men have gone too far. Hunter (a committed Haley Bennet) is newly pregnant. She is in an externally nice relationship with all the bennies that come from such a thing: a nice house; extended family; lots of time to make up the place for her forthcoming offspring. Something pulses through Hunter’s being, reminding her that is not all right, that she is not enough, that pregnancy must reshape her from the image she has built of herself to her partner’s liking, into something else. There are so many changes, she is to become a new person. And men still want what they want. As her husband (an ineffectual Austin Stowell) enforces stricter control over her day-to-day, Hunter takes her body into her own hands, ingesting all manner of dangerous substances, to find a matter she can control, albeit dangerously, over the course of the pregnancy.
Haley Bennet deserves all the credit. She is extremely tuned in. Instant comparison, both thematic and aesthetically, can be drawn to Mother! (2017)’s Jennifer Lawrence. Bennet approaches the same doll-like exterior, the flattened matter-of-fact homemaker trying to rehabilitate an increasingly hostile environment, just as it slips far out of her control. Her performance is nearly equal. It is a damn shame nobody mirrors her laser-like focus. Everyone else in Swallow strikes pretty rough chemistry with her. We do come to believe in her oppression, her mechanical need for self-abuse, but only by the lacking dexterity of her cast. She is truly alone, even in performing for this movie.
The self-harm starts small, as it so often does. Hunter is reading a pregnancy book that proclaims she might want to try and do something unexpected, something that might surprise even her. She eats a marble whole. This is her practicing control over the only thing that is fundamentally hers, her digestion. When it comes out, she puts it on display, a reminder of her small victory against, but also for, herself. As it escalates, the self-harm becomes increasingly hard to watch. Notably, a thumbtack looks like an awfully hard swallow. If it progressed cleanly and with drastic consequences, it might lead to much more on-screen. Instead, the consequences are chiefly social, as her husband finds the physical evidence of her abuse and shares it with everyone, as is revealed to her at a big party. It could’ve done more in the script to have the revelation interpersonal. But, as with all aspects of her life, they’ve been predetermined by outside entities, before she gets to the information. Swallow also sells itself short, making silly moments out of her harm, like when she ingests a battery and is supercharged to clean the house. It’s not a great metaphor, it doesn’t mean anything, it just mocks her disorder.
Second star of the show is Director of Photography Katelin Arizmendi. See her elevated work in Cam (2018) for an exceptional vision of identity horror. Her images, softly lensed, and warm in the womb of prenatal energy, are distinctly feminine, and good. She has a great eye for Bennet especially, who benefits from her deft touch. Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis has found good luck in his feature debut, allowing women to tell the stories of their bodies that the characters are never enabled to do.
Swallow is an uneasy watch, the kind that sticks in your throat. Swathed in discomfort, it asks us to look at a common thing for the modern indie movie: abusive power struggles in relationships. It is not the kind of body horror that is rewarding in its grotesque exhibitionism, but is instead alarming in its disquietude. We have an emerging talent front and center and a very good DP letting her fill the frame with confidence. We cannot help but feel everyone around them has let their side down, playing so close to the extreme version of what they are, they are cast as unbelievable next to someone doing the real thing with great authenticity.