‘Swallow’ (2020) Review

"Fake it, till you make it."

Beautiful cinematography, edge-of-your-seat tension, and extraordinary acting make Swallow a feminist thriller must-see!

I struggle daily when I look in the mirror and see the imperfections growing as I get older. Aging is the one disease there is no cure for, and it hits hard. But even young people face the same problem. How can we live up to everyone’s expectations of us? There is always going to be someone telling us we are not perfect. The media, our family and even our friends. The best we can do is put on a happy face and keep moving forward, right? When people say “Hi, how are you?”- unfortunately, they don’t really want to know. The standard answer of “Fine.” always suffices and keeps people satisfied. But could this mask we wear daily make us go crazy?

In Writer/Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ psychological thriller Swallow, we discover what happens when one seemingly perfect housewife takes her true feelings, stuffs them away and becomes the Stepford-type wife her husband and new in-laws expect. An uncomfortable film to watch, this study of living up to other’s expectations and the entitlement of the super-rich is very enlightening and is a movie that left me cheering at the end.

Synopsis: On the surface, Hunter appears to have it all. A newly pregnant housewife, she seems content to spend her time tending to an immaculate home and doting on her husband, Richie. However, as the pressure to meet her controlling in-laws and husband’s rigid expectations mounts, cracks begin to appear in her carefully created facade.

The film opens with Hunter. (Haley Bennett) Looking out over her impeccable upstate New York home, she is like a beautiful china doll. Perfectly lovely in pastel, she looks like every stereotypical rich woman, perfect figure, perfect skin and every hair in place. Her face is blank- there is no sign of happiness or sadness, she could be a figurine. That empty gaze instantly set me on edge. No one that is happy would have such a wooden expression. What is really going on?

It doesn’t take long before we realize that Hunter is just a beautiful bird in a gilded cage. There is nothing that isn’t controlled in her life. The Ken to her Barbie, husband Richie (Austin Stowell) has gotten her pregnant, the required thing to do in this elite world and the baby is the cherry on top of the giant glasshouse, recently gifted to them by his parents. (Elizabeth Marvel and Davie Rasche.)

As we watch from her point of view, we discover every moment of Hunter’s day is planned, all the way from cleaning the already immaculate house, to the orchestrated intimate moments with her husband. She has so much time on her hands, and literally nothing useful to do. She is bored. The cracks in the façade start to appear early on. Hunter accidentally ruins one of Richie’s silk ties and we see the disdain in his eyes when he shows her. His parents talk down to her, more like over her, as if she doesn’t even exist. She is just arm candy for Richie to show off.  One of his friends even insinuates they should have sex- as if she was just there for entertainment and not married to his friend.

At this point, we know nothing about Hunter’s back story, but one would have to surmise it was not a good one, or she would have the self-esteem to not be treated like a pet. Because of this lack of control in her life and probably hormones from pregnancy, she develops Pica.

A person with Pica has the compulsion to ingest things that have no nutritional value. As disorders go- this can be a harmless one if you just eat your fingernails, but larger, sharper objects can be a problem.  Starting small, Hunter finds a marble, rolling it around in her mouth sensuously before swallowing it. Afterward, she is a different person- she is proud of herself and almost tells Richie how happy this made her and isn’t he proud of her too- before she realizes that he wouldn’t feel the same way. Keeping it her little secret, Hunter takes back the power in her life by swallowing little items she finds around the house. After they come back out (yes, that way) she washes them and lines them up like tiny trophies by her bed. This continues until she is caught during a routine ultrasound and they find things other than just a baby inside her.

When the in-laws find out about her independent but dangerous actions, she is not loved or worried over. They are embarrassed about her totally innappropriate behavior. She is shamed, locked in the house, sent to therapy and a military-type guy is hired to watch her every move.

What makes this such an amazing film is that the tension never stops for a moment. The audience is literally hanging on the edge of their seats waiting to see what bigger and sharper things she will swallow. You can’t help but empathize with her. I hated her husband and horrible, cruel in-laws. I was quietly willing her to just run- but realized that somehow, she was ok with these people abusing her, believing that somehow, she deserved it; she felt that bad about herself. I wanted to help her- but felt powerless myself.

I will not share the cause of her traumatic childhood. The fantastic Denis O’Hare gives a small but amazing performance that explains everything. Afterward, it is wonderful to watch Hunter go through yet another transformation- one that made me cry and cheer. Haley Bennett was truly the star of this film and was, unlike her character, actually perfect in every way!

Swallow is a precisely crafted and superb example of body horror done right. When a person’s personal empowerment becomes self-harm, and we see them go through real but subtle abuse by their own family, it is easy to get sucked deeply into the story and root for the underdog. Though disturbing in many ways – Swallow is a must-see thriller with a very feminist sub-text!


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