Comparisons will be drawn between Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow and the films of Yorgos Lanthimos and Todd Solondz, with its showcasing of the most grotesque and depraved parts of humanity using very clean-cut, sanitized and symmetrical imagery. But apart from some absurd and darkly comic dialogue, at no point does this film become untethered from reality, and perhaps that is what makes the viewing experience of Swallow so stressful. Lanthimos and Solondz might push the limits of horror, absurdity, and magical realism for the sake of satire, but Mirabella-Davis tip toes right up against the line. Exaggerated, sure, but never unbelievable.
Soft-spoken and doe-eyed Hunter (Haley Bennett) was sold the American dream and had all but accepted her role as a cog in a machine for the sake of financial security. She is the doting stay-at-home housewife of wealthy working man Richie (Austin Stowell), soon to be mother of his child. With seemingly no friends or hobbies of her own, Hunter has little to do all day apart from vacuum the carpet and eat cheese balls in front of the television, until she makes a habit out of swallowing miscellaneous household objects and collecting them on her bedroom vanity once they pass through her system. She makes a game of it, challenging herself by swallowing progressively larger and more lethal items. While fairly uncommon, the compulsion to swallow inedible objects (or “pica”) certainly exists- it’s an addiction like any other. There is no practical or valid reason for her to be doing what she is doing, but anyone who has struggled with drug abuse, drinking, gambling, or even excessive hair pulling has likely gone through a similar emotional journey to Hunter’s- the need to maintain a sense of control over your own decisions by controlling when you receive instant gratification because you feel like the rest of your world is falling apart, even if the decisions you’re making are self-destructive.
We later find out that Hunter’s biological father (Denis O’Hare) was a man who had sexually assaulted her mother, a deeply religious woman who didn’t believe in terminating the pregnancy. Hunter’s birth was the result of a horrific crime, which means she feels she must spend most of her life justifying her own existence by becoming as useful and nonthreatening as possible. Some will inevitably take issue with the final act of the film, in which Hunter locates her long-lost biological father, for trying to make the audience empathize with a rapist. But I don’t think this was Mirabella-Davis’s intent. Hunter confronts him in his home during his new young daughter’s birthday party. He has, at least on a surface level, gotten his life together- happily married, with a solid community of friends and neighbors and a comfortable suburban living situation- infuriating for Hunter to witness, especially when he couldn’t be that way for her. She demands to know why he did what he did, and he appears remorseful. His excuse for his behavior seems to echo one he might have heard from a therapist during his years in prison or rehab, and it mirrors Hunter’s reason for swallowing inanimate objects. He felt like he was losing control, and he desperately wanted to regain it. In one quick but powerful moment, we see in Hunter’s eyes the two realizations that have sunken in: she is both exactly like her father and nothing like her father. The difference between the two of them is that her negative compulsions don’t involve the harming of others, and Hunter seems to gain some sense of relief from this revelation- relief from a lifetime of guilt and self-hatred. He wasn’t placed there to make the audience empathize with him- he was there to provide some semblance of peace for its well-deserving and long-suffering protagonist. And that scene alone was genuinely one of the more moving and empowering viewing experiences I had at the Tribeca Film Festival.