Swallow belongs to a very niche subgenre of feminist horror. Author Margaret Atwood’s first novel, 1969’s The Edible Woman, followed a woman who develops an inexplicable aversion to eating. Director Todd Haynes’ Safe (1995) starred Julianne Moore as a wife and mother who retreats from the world after becoming convinced everyday chemicals in the air are poisoning her. Lesser known, yet still effective, is France’s 2002 film In My Skin, which centered on a privileged twentysomething who suddenly can’t stop picking at a festering wound on her leg.
The reasons behind these women’s self-destructive impulses are never explicitly stated, though one thing remains clear: They’re the byproducts of oppressive institutions. Social structures forced upon middle and upper-class females — be it the nuclear family, rampant consumerism or merely the expectation to smile and do as you’re told — are suffocating, not liberating. The ambiguous causes of their behavior are entirely the point: When the foundations of your world are rotting from the inside out, insanity is as rational a response as any.
Swallow, the feature-length debut of writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, is the latest iteration of this story. Hunter (Haley Bennett) is a young housewife who embraces her newfound domesticity by swallowing dangerous household items. It starts innocently enough with an ice cube at dinner and then rapidly escalates to sketchier materials like thimbles and thumbtacks. Watching someone choke and cough up blood while trying to swallow a tack is obviously upsetting, but that discomfort only intensifies when it’s revealed she’s pregnant.
Hunter’s impossibly handsome and wealthy husband Richie (played with just the right level of smarm by Austin Stowell) and micro-managing in-laws (David Rasche and Elizabeth Marvel, both having a blast) are presented as awful people who nevertheless believe a modest girl like Hunter is incredibly fortunate to have married into such an upstanding family. During a dinner table chat, these in-laws regale her with tales of her husband’s childhood, but when Hunter tries to share a memory of her own, she’s brushed aside so Richie and his father can discuss a business deal. Hunter is viewed by her new family less as an individual and more like a luxury owed to Richie for ascending the corporate ladder.
Just when you think you have Swallow pegged as a critique of male entitlement, Mirabella-Davis takes the narrative in directions that open the central “swallowing” metaphor to a variety of interpretations. Once Hunter can no longer hide her compulsion, Richie and the in-laws go to drastic lengths to stop her. On the one hand, their actions are sensible; she’s not only risking her own life but her child’s as well. But the family’s true concerns boil down to protecting Richie’s image. Their selfish attempts at controlling Hunter — such as hiring a live-in nurse to watch her every move or removing small objects from the house — inevitably recall men who claim to be pro-life while also giving little thought to the actual women harmed by their viewpoint.
That doesn’t mean the film ever comes across as didactic. Mirabella-Davis continually adds subtle wrinkles to keep things from sinking into a morally righteous slump. The screenplay wisely withholds most of Hunter’s backstory, and the little snippets of information we do get about her past — such as one late-in-the-game revelation about her real family — serve to further complicate matters instead of clarify them. This isn’t a simple allegory about privilege or wealth or patriarchy or a woman’s right to choose. It’s all of the above.
Such stories require the lead actress to pull off a tough balancing act. A detached performance of enigmatic nature is necessary while, at the same time, delivering enough nuance to make their bizarre behavior a compelling mystery. Best known for supporting turns in forgettable dreck like The Girl on the Train or the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, Bennett deserves equal credit alongside Mirabella-Davis for turning a character with minimal expressiveness into someone whose vacant gaze hides deranged depths. She plays Hunter as harmless and complaisant in one instance, only for a manic glint to flash across her eyes a split-second later.
Like the smooth, sterile surfaces of Hunter and Richie’s new home (captured with chilling beauty by cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi), Swallow is sometimes too staid for its own good. With a script this low on incident, you occasionally feel Mirabella-Davis losing momentum, and a few scenes move at a languid pace despite having predictable conclusions; pretty much any interaction between Hunter and her in-laws is bound to end with a dressing-down. Plus, the final moments don’t quite jibe with the lingering sense of doom that permeates everything up until then.
Regardless, it’s easy to envision a movie with this brazen of a premise slipping into self-parody, especially in the hands of a first-time filmmaker. The fact that it doesn’t is enough reason to believe that Mirabella-Davis could deliver something truly killer next time.