Review: Swallow is a pleasure to choke down—as rough as it sometimes is

Swallow, featuring Clippy

Outwardly appearing the most exquisitely shot episode of My Strange Addiction imaginable, Swallow has just as much in common with the likes of Far from Heaven and Mad Men B-plots. Without the frequent appearance of smart phones, it comes across a sadly still-relevant period piece. It’s a portrait of domestic ennui where a bored housewife puts on earrings and a dress, her hair neatly curled at the jaw, to vacuum her mid-century home. But while many such put-upon women of the fiction past have sought their release in affairs or booze, Swallow‘s heroine just so happens to find hers in gulping down household objects.

Haley Bennett stars as Hunter, a former would-be illustrator and former menial worker who, instead of ending up with Jim in The Office, marries an unbearably douchey business bro (Austin Stowell). She—like the bulk of the film, aptly—is resigned to the fancy home her in-laws recently bought her and bro, where she cleans, prepares dinner, and dicks around on mobile puzzle games until her neglectful, would-be Patrick Bateman gets home. With no job prospects and no real connection to her blood family, she’s trapped, forced to put on a trophy wife act even when she can feel she doesn’t belong. When she finds out she’s pregnant, it’s enough to push her into the nauseatingly drastic to regain some control. Which is to say: she starts finding comfort in swallowing the likes of push-pins, batteries, jacks, and marbles, turning her stomach into an early level of Katamari Damacy.

Also, who the hell has jacks and marbles sitting around their house? Again, is this set in the late ’50s or not?

Not that the time matters all that much. Nor does the place, or even Hunter’s affliction.

Pica, the psychological disorder that leaves its sufferers with the desire to swallow non-nutritive items, is a real thing (and just as tied to pregnancy). But as specific as it is to make a movie about that, that’s not really what the film is about. Swallow focuses on a disorder not to really get to the specifics of the issue but to speak to the broader idea of what could cause such a thing. With a few scene changes, the movie could just as easily be about bulimia, trichotillomania, or a dozen other things, but what makes the choice of pica so interesting and unique is just how visceral it is—in no small part thanks to writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s treatment of it.

For as gorgeously as Swallow is shot, it is admirably hard to watch at times. Straight-up seeing a push-pin go down a woman’s throat isn’t easy, and it doesn’t make it any easier when you later see a precision screwdriver attempt its way down her esophagus. That Mirabella-Davis manages to land a few darkly-comic moments in between is a surprising feat given how close a laugh could bring one to puking over the very real endoscopy also tossed in there.

A lot of credit also belongs with Mirabella-Davis’s sound team, who somehow pieced together something just as odd a mix of sexy and disquieting as the film as a whole. From the near-pop hissing of ice cubes, to the clack of a glass marble against the mirror that serves as Hunter’s “trophy case” of successful swallows, there’s something aurally both seductive and unnerving about Swallow‘s many forbidden snacks.

It’s an exciting debut that announces Mirabella-Davis as an indie presence, but its slim 94 minutes hints at just how ultimately un-filling its sundry edibles end up. While one of Swallow‘s opening scenes highlights a lamb dish, the film itself could use so much meat on the bone. Despite some gorgeous filmmaking and a memorable lead performance, this is more a Tide Pod—a tiny embodiment of domesticity wrapped in a beautiful little package one is all too tempted to eat.

Grade: B+

Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Studio: IFC Films
Runtime: 94 minutes
Rating: R
Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Denis O’Hare

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