Swallow (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A woman under compulsion

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“Swallow” is a disturbing psychological thriller film which will make you wince more than once for good reasons. Calmly observing its young heroine’s increasingly alarming compulsion, the movie delves deep into her troubled state of mind, and there are a number of quiet but striking emotional moments which will linger on your mind along with a captivating performance from its lead actress.

At the beginning, the movie shows us the seemingly safe and comfortable domestic environment surrounding Hunter (Haley Bennett) and her husband. Thanks to her husband’s rich parents, they have lived in a slick modern house located at some remote spot by a river, and she seems to be fine with being left alone in the house during daytime. She is mostly occupied with changing the decor of the house, and she is certainly ready to cook a dinner when her husband returns from his workplace in the evening.

However, we slowly come to sense the frustration and suffocation being accumulated behind Hunter’s docile appearance. When she tries to have some real conversation with her husband, her husband looks willing to listen to her at first, but then he gets distracted by a phone call, and that is the end of their conversation. While he is mostly nice and generous to his wife, there is a brief scene showing how callous and inconsiderate he can be to her, and it is quite apparent to us that she is more or less than a trophy wife for him.

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When Hunter gets pregnant, her situation becomes more suffocating than before thanks to not only her husband but also her parents-in-law. While he is certainly pleased about her pregnancy, her husband does not provide much emotional support to her, and neither do her parents-in-law, who clearly do not regard her highly while excited about getting a grandchild who may inherit their lucrative family business someday. As spending more time with her mother-in-law, Hunter cannot help but feel quite suffocated, and her mother-in-law soon comes to sense that and then asks a simple but penetrating question to Hunter.

In the meantime, Hunter finds herself gradually driven by a certain compulsion. As she goes through another uneventful day in the house, she looks at a glass marble for a while, and then she swallows it without any hesitation. When the object in question is later excreted from her body, she cleans it and then keeps it, and that is just the first cycle of her growing compulsion. At one point, she attempts to shallow a small sharp object, and that is certainly one of the most disturbing moments in the film.

Steadily maintaining its calm, detached mood, the movie slowly dials up the level of tension. While cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi effectively establishes a dry, sterile atmosphere on the screen, the ambient score by Nathan Helpern often keeps us on the edge, and we come to brace ourselves more as Hunter swallows more small objects including a battery, which, as many of you know, can be quite lethal due to its acidic contents.

Of course, there soon comes an inevitable point where Hunter cannot hide her compulsion behind her back anymore, and the screenplay by director/writer Carlo Mirabella-Davis accordingly focuses more on what really makes her tick. It looks like her compulsion is originated from her certain lifelong shame, and we come to gather that she wants to feel like getting things under her control as swallowing those small objects. When she later finds herself cornered more by her husband and parents-in-law, she makes a big decision out of desperation, and that subsequently leads to an unexpected moment of emotional resolution between her and someone in her past.

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As the center of the film, Haley Bennett, who previously appeared in a number of notable films including “The Equalizer” (2014), is utterly fabulous in what may be regarded as a breakthrough turn in her growing acting career. While subtly conveying to us her character’s accumulating confusion and frustration, Bennett is also quite convincing during several key scenes in the film, and we come to emphasize more with her character’s emotional struggle along the story. As trying to deal with her compulsion, Hunter comes to discern more of how helpless and powerless she has been in her married life, and the eventual arrival point of her dark emotional journey is surprisingly poignant as she actively chooses to do what should be done for herself.

In case of the other main cast members, they fill their respective spots around Bennett well on the whole. Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel, and David Rasche are effective especially when their characters show more callousness to Hunter, and Luna Lauren Vélez and Laith Nakli are also fine as two different supporting characters who genuinely care about Hunter’s mental health. In case of Denis O’Hare, he deftly handles a rather tricky scene along with Bennett, and that is the main reason why the following scene is delivered with considerable dramatic effect.

On the whole, “Swallow” is a fascinating piece of work thanks to Bennett’s committed performance as well as the competent direction of Mirabella-Davis, who made several short films before this feature film debut of his. It is indeed a tough stuff to watch, but it is still worthwhile to watch as another interesting female drama film, so I recommend it to you with some caution.

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