SwallowReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/12/19 11:19:31
SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Swallow" turns out to be just the right sort of low-key unnerving it needs to be, though it would have been exceptionally easy to overshoot the mark. It's a film about disquiet and discontent, so while it's entirely appropriate for it to occasionally make the audience cringe, it can't run away with things and make its admittedly disturbed main character seem nuts. Instead, it's impressively sympathetic even when it could be a freakshow.Hunter (Haley Bennett) and Richie (Austin Stowell) have recently married, and it's a bit of an adjustment for her; Richie's just been made a managing director of the large family business, and while Hunter spends the suddenly vast amount of free time she has at their new house sketching - she wants to be an artist - the days do seem to stretch out for someone used to working, especially since Richie's promotion is keeping him busy. He and his parents (Elizabeth Marvel & David Rasche) are excited when she announces that she is pregnant, the mother giving her a self-help book that she found helpful when pregnant with Richie, but she takes its instructions to "do something unexpected" in an odd way, impulsively swallowing a small marble - and when that passes, she moves on to other small objects around the house.
It's an odd but believable compulsion, effective in large part because anybody watching can almost grasp the appeal right away - filmmaker Carlo Mirabella-Davis and star Haley Bennett make sure that the audience can grasp the tactile nature of it even though that's not necessarily something film gets across well; it's a clear contrast to the open, soft environment where Hunter finds herself alone - the house is all open floorplans and a balcony whose glass walls are almost invisible. Her new in-laws are friendly enough but have a tendency to see her as an extension of their son, especially once she's pregnant. As strange as this behavior is, it's clearly asserting something inside and out.
It makes Bennett's performance one of interesting contrasts; she spends a great deal of time meek and mouse-like, giving little hints that her being this sort of classy homemaker is a new skill for her, broken up by the strained physicality that comes when she's trying to get something that the human body really wasn't built for down (or out). Once Hunter is discovered, Bennett is able to react with what's mostly confusion, both in regard to her own compulsions and why they're such a big deal, but what may be best is how she reacts when things click into place, with a great combination of panic and strength. She's in nearly every scene, doing strange things, and she's so fully committed that even idly stuffing her face with dirt seems relatable, if definitely peculiar and eliciting a deserved laugh.
The rest of the cast orbit her, and they do the job. Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel, and David Rasche are playing a sort of generically wealthy family, the sort that don't quite recognize that they're classist most of the time, just enough of an exemplar of the sort of wealth that has little room for any space between idleness and intense commitment to the business to indict the system without seeming like complete strawmen. It's the later additions that intrigue, such as Laith Nakli as a gruff Syrian "nurse" who has trouble comprehending self-harm, and Denis O'Hare in a role that could easily hit the wrong note but somehow never does.
It's straightforward enough that the filmmakers have to dress it up a bit; a lot of scenes have the sort of carefully symmetrical composition and ironically bright colors that are almost a cliche on their own now, but are nevertheless striking. There's more than a bit of Douglas Sirk here in Hunter's idle-housewife costumes and the like, though it seldom feels like pastiche. The filmmakers don't shy from being kind of direct with Hunter's desire to feel textures in a bland life, but they can't exactly avoid it. The last scene is especially direct, but it works. You can't come up with a bold metaphor and be too casual about it, after all.That directness is well-managed; a fair number of movies along the lines of "Swallow" are often more focused on the twistedness than the rationale, or can be dully casual, but that's not a problem Mirabella-Davis often runs afoul of. It's an empathetic film, but a compelling one, just strange enough to get the audience's attention without pushing it away.
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