Released in select theatres back in March, Swallow explores the unique horror of being a woman and the resilience that it ultimately takes to be one
The opening shot of Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ directorial debut welcomes the audience to an alternately repulsive and riveting world - a lamb gets snatched away from its flock, butchered by a gray-haired man with no blood oozing down; and shortly after we watch with horror as our heroine Hunter greedily wolfs down the medium-cooked lamb steak at a dinner party, thrown to celebrate her husband Richie’s business adventures.
Even though, like a good Samaritan, the debutant director is warning the feeble-hearted about the incoming gore, what proves to be more shocking than the savagery at the heart of this highly stylized body-horror is the bold and relevant feminist themes that Mirabella-Davis for a change does not shy away from.
Swallow follows a picture-perfect, newly married couple, Hunter (Haley Benett) and Richie (Austin Stowell), leading a lavish life - the kind that evokes envy - in a mid-century modern home above the Hudson River, overlooking a deep forest. With her impeccable blonde bob, vintage outfits and a baby-like voice, Hunter is, no doubt, an obedient wife, doting on her distant, inattentive husband and her smug in-laws (Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche).
With no family or friends to speak of, she bides her time alone in the mansion, meticulously setting the table for her husband’s dinner and playing mindless games on her mobile phone. Like an exotic animal caught in a cage, Hunter slaves away to amuse Richie and his friends in an attempt to be seen and heard, to no avail. She is a ghost, conveniently forgotten and ignored by her husband and his family, haunting the solitary corners of their impregnable fortress.
Things take a turn for the worse when Hunter gets pregnant. With a new life growing inside her body to which she feels no emotional attachment whatsoever, not only does her alienation grow greater than before, but her already dwindling sense of agency also takes a severe beating.
She develops a strange habit of eating non-food items in an attempt to jolt herself out of codependency and the ever-present feeling of powerlessness. Pica - a compulsion to devour inedible objects - is a rare disorder that Hunter gladly indulges in. It begins with an ice cube, quickly followed by a safety pin, thumbtack, battery, even a miniature screwdriver.
There is nonetheless a method to her madness - as she becomes fascinated with each new dangerous object, she holds it before the sunlight slanting through her glass house, as if participating in an act of communion, and gulps it down, winces in pleasure, later fishes it out from her excrement, and places it in her mantelpiece like a trophy to mark each act of her rebellion.
Slowly, Hunter’s unruffled composure begins to disappear. Her soft whimpers turn to high-pitched cries, and the couple’s chilly displays of affection transform into shouting matches. Her mental disorder finally gives her the means to disrupt the order of her superficially perfect, emotionally unfulfilling internal life.
Released in select theatres back in March, Swallow clearly owes a debt to John Cassavetes’ A Woman under the Influence and Todd Haynes’ Safe - two brilliant films from the last century about the unraveling of women plagued by domestic despair. Writer-director Mirabella-Davis’ feature debut also seems to add to Virginia Woolf’s seminal work A Room of One’s Own and echo the wisdom of contemporary Iranian feminist scholars like Farzaneh Milani by orchestrating that women can’t possibly attain bodily autonomy and, in a broad sense, freedom, by simply owning a physical space without also enjoying the right to walk out or return to it as they please, whenever they please. Lack of this choice turns ownership into a glorified house arrest; a room of one’s own thus becomes a jail cell, as is the case here for Hunter.
While there has never been a dearth of pregnancy-themed horror films in Hollywood and Mirabella-Davis’ debut feature also does not starve itself, at least initially, of the perverse pleasure that lies in capturing a woman’s life coming undone, the film ultimately manages to adopt a far more nuanced and sophisticated take on the suppression of the female voice by dramatically changing gears in the second half, with characters treading the uncharted waters of intergenerational sexual abuse, patriarchal surveillance of a woman’s body, rehabilitative impact of imprisonment and so on. Swallow gently moves away from the unique horror of being a woman and proceeds to discuss the resilience that it takes to be one.