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review

In Swallow, Haley Bennett plays Hunter, a newly pregnant housewife who suffers from pica disorder – a condition that has her compulsively ingesting non-food items.Courtesy of IFC Films

  • Swallow
  • Written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis
  • Starring Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell and Denis O’Hare
  • Classification R; 94 minutes

Rating:

2 out of 4 stars

Finally, North America’s No. 1 box-office hit Swallow is arriving for home viewing! All right, calling Swallow the continent’s top movie is slightly misleading. Released at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic three weeks ago, Swallow played at only a handful of drive-ins, earning just US$2,150 from the one theatre (Florida’s Ocala Drive-In) that made the effort to report grosses. But that was still enough to make director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s feature debut the top-grossing film of that weekend, and net a few bemused headlines along the way.

I feel, though, that Swallow would have dominated quite a bit of the film news cycle regardless of its unprecedented theatrical release timing. This is a movie that cries out for attention, in ways both admirable and grating.

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A suburban satire thinly disguised as a domestic horror film – or maybe it’s the other way around – Swallow focuses on Hunter (Haley Bennett), a housewife who finds herself trapped in upper-class isolation after marrying the bland finance bro Richie (Austin Stowell) and settling in a Dwell magazine-ready mansion overlooking the Hudson River. With nothing to do all day but play iPhone games, await her husband’s increasingly late returns home and avoid her overbearing in-laws, Hunter – who is newly pregnant – begins to ingest non-food items.

Hunter finds herself trapped in upper-class isolation after marrying the bland finance bro Richie (Austin Stowell) and settling in a mansion overlooking the Hudson River.Courtesy of IFC Films

At first, it’s a marble. Then a thumbtack, a battery and worse. Yet, it’s when Richie and his parents discover Hunter’s secret that her physical health and fragile mental state take an even more dire turn – and transform Mirabella-Davis’s film into something resembling high camp.

The character’s dangerous habit is a result of pica disorder, which is not uncommon in young children (think of your toddler shoving dirt, paint or glue into their mouth). And accordingly, but perhaps not intentionally, Mirabella-Davis treats Hunter’s behaviour with kid gloves – it is a disorder that the film treats as fit for gawking and disgust, not anything close to understanding or empathy.

Initially, Swallow treats Hunter as a foreign creature beamed in from another time and place. She struts around her contemporary home like a fifties housewife, all wide dresses and pearl necklaces and creaky perma-smile – a weak-sauce attempt on the director’s part of conveying some sort of throwback social satire, such as Douglas Sirk crossed with John Waters and then tossed into Eli Roth’s trash bin.

When Mirabella-Davis feels he’s hit the endgame of that approach – having reduced pica and Hunter to some sort of high-gloss freak show – he swerves into contrived movie-of-the-week territory, where deep trauma is washed away with easy answers and cathartic confrontations. By the time Hunter comes to terms with who she is – and why she is putting her life in danger with every gulp – Mirabella-Davis has paradoxically lost interest in his character. Or at least become wildly confused as to her purpose in his story.

If Bennett weren’t doing her absolute best here – her eyes, her whispers, her flinches suggest an inner life for Hunter that the rest of the film cannot abide interest in – then Swallow would completely choke.

Swallow is available digitally on-demand starting April 28.

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