Swallow tells the story of a soft-spoken housewife who feels trapped in her current situation, yet in denial that anything’s wrong at the risk of losing her halcyon lifestyle. When she becomes pregnant, she develops pica, a mental disorder where a person craves non-nutritional objects like dirt, metal, or glass. She quietly starts with a marble, but moves on to much more dangerous things like batteries and jacks (NOT Apple Jacks). I get paranoid when a hair winds up in my sandwich, but this lady is eating thumbtacks.
Richie (Austin Stowell) and his wife, Hunter (Haley Bennett) live in their lavish neo-modern home, a picturesque and tidy environment which only serves to compliment their carefree appearance. To Richie, as long as he constantly compliments his wife, buys her jewelry, and thanks her for her support, he’s being a good husband. He doesn’t know any better because that’s how his own parents are. Hunter, who lived an unconventional childhood, recognizes that she married into a wealthy family. Richie’s parents are very rich and possess all the stereotypes of privileged upper-class Americans.
Hunter keeps her pica secret for a little while, but when her husband accompanies her for her ultrasound, the bizarre objects show up in the imaging. Richie’s attitude turns from appreciative to furious instantly and he doesn’t seem to care that something is truly wrong with his wife – only that this issue will affect his own personal image (but then he goes and tells everyone he knows about it). Love is easy for him when things are squeaky clean, but when things get tough, he’s not willing to deal with the burdens that come with love and commitment – handing all of his problems over to his overbearing and micromanaging parents.
Hunter and Richie’s relationship is so unconvincing, even before her disorder comes to light, that you can’t ever imagine how this couple got together in the first place. But I suppose love is strange, even when you’re not eating thumbtacks.
And Hunter isn’t guilt-free in all this. She welcomes the financial support of her new family and denies there’s anything wrong with her eating habits, even when Richie eventually tries to uncover her secrets. If we try to justify and empathize with our protagonist’s problems, then why should we write off those of the antagonists, pinning them as unredeemable?
Eventually Hunter seeks the guidance of a therapist, and begrudgingly some interesting details come out about her past, and pressure from Richie and his parents forces her to reacquaint herself with her own demons from her past. Hunter and Richie’s relationship is built on facades, utopian ideals that aren’t meant to be realistic, yet somehow seem more plausible than what’s actually happening in this movie.
Writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis aims to prove his points through audience manipulation, especially when it comes to what he wants us to think of his characters, even resorting to unrealistic responses to conflict and contradictions in their motives, like the aforementioned instance of Richie becoming infuriated because of how Hunter’s issue risks his pristine image, yet tells all of his coworkers about it.
Early in the movie, prior to any of Hunter’s problems, she’s out at a nice restaurant with Richie and his parents. Her husband encourages her to tell a funny anecdote from her past, but one sentence into her story, her father-in-law rudely cuts her off and starts talking about something completely different and unimportant, almost in spite of her. There’s no reason for tension yet. From everything we’ve seen so far, he seems to like his daughter-in-law. This behavior feels unearned at this point, his rudeness is only justified by the filmmaker wanting us not to like him.
Swallow is a story about feeling trapped in your domestic life, an overused theme in practically all media, but here the suspense is underpinned with the pica condition, with it merely serving as a reason for Hunter’s family to take issue with her. The condition is explored in some depth, however, it only acts as a plot device and a way to hook the audience. If you remove it, the film is pretty unoriginal, albeit stylishly executed. The director crafts an attractive minimalist world, which serves well to highlight the oddities of the universe. The movie’s tone perfectly matches the strangeness of Hunter’s condition. But as we’ve seen time and time again, tone and strangeness alone can’t carry a film.
Swallow is consistently hard to watch, and nearly makes up for it with a gripping narrative that takes you on a journey. After events come to a head, and you’re ready to see how they change Hunter’s life, the movie’s abrupt ending doesn’t leave us on a great note. Mirabella-Davis is clearly a solid storyteller, always keeping us guessing and intrigued where the simple plot is headed next, but also never strays too far from its agenda. He utilizes a strict perspective, only showing events unfold through Hunter’s point of view, which emphasizes what he’s trying to say but at the same time this also skews the bias. If you have to try hard to prove a point by embellishing, then perhaps you need a bit more clarity.