'Swallow' : Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Tribeca Film Festival
Bold conceit, thoroughly muddled execution.

Haley Bennett stars in a psychodrama about a woman whose disorder makes her eat tiny objects.

You have to buy into a very weird premise to find Swallow convincing, but it’s not the ostensible weird premise that writer and director Carlo Mirabella-Davis sets up. The film’s basic idea is that a pregnant woman named Hunter, played by Haley Bennett under a prim bobbed wig, is so unhappy in her marriage that she begins eating small objects: a marble, a pushpin, a battery. But as a quick bit of dialogue informs us, that part is based on a real syndrome called pica, an emotional disorder that creates the need to consume inedible things, a variation on more familiar OCD actions like compulsive hand-washing.

No, the truly strange, self-defeating concept the movie posits is that Hunter lives in the 21st century as if she were a woman from the 1950s. She’s a stay-at-home wife who rambles around her big house most of the day, then cooks dinner for her husband and greets him at the door in heels and a cocktail dress. The idea is cartoonish in its essence but the pic is shot and played with such straight-faced realism that Swallow becomes utterly ridiculous.

In his first feature, Mirabella-Davis seems to have a sincere artistic vision. At least he creates Hunter’s retro world deliberately. The setting is clearly contemporary; her other compulsion is playing games on her phone. But she vacuums the rug wearing kitten heels and looks at her businessman husband with an adoring Nancy Reaganesque gaze. The production design suits the throwback conceit. The house has big picture windows and sleek 1960s modern furniture. But the stylized look can’t redeem the simplistic characterizations.

Hunter’s husband and rich in-laws are flat-out anachronisms, too. At dinner with them, her father-in-law cuts her off when she begins, in the meekest possible voice, to speak. Her reaction is to crunch loudly on an ice cube from her drink. Soon the film finds her at home swallowing a marble. A day or so later she puts on pretty flowered plastic gloves to retrieve it from the toilet. Thankfully, the scene leaves the details to our imaginations. She cleans the marble off and saves it as a kind of trophy. The film never comes close to the Grand Guignol territory it at times seems to be heading for, though.

Suspenseful music cues try to build anticipation. Will she or won’t she swallow that battery? That little screwdriver? Viewers are more likely to wonder: Why isn’t she dead yet? At one point, the objects lined up on Hunter’s dresser, all reclaimed from the toilet, are shot to look slightly larger than they are. But that stands out as a half-hearted feint at a more symbolic style.

Bennett does what she can with a role that is all about hesitancy, and which is one-note nearly to the end. Hunter is meant to be sympathetic, a woman with no voice of her own, but she is annoyingly dull.

Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche are reliable, as always, as the in-laws. Austin Stowell walks through the role of Hunter’s dismissive husband, who changes from wooden to belligerent when he learns about her disorder. They go together for her sonogram, which reveals not only a healthy fetus, but an array of other objects in her tummy. She has swallowed a clothespin and a chess piece (at least it was only a little pawn).

At the end, the film rushes through an explanation of how Hunter got to be so messed up, much of it confided clumsily to a therapist. She realizes that eating objects "made me feel in control," a statement so obvious that it’s hardly worth wasting the screen time. She talks about her mother, whom she calls "a right-wing religious nut," and tells about an episode that begins with her mother in a bar. There is probably a pretty interesting story about that bar-hopping religious nut, but Mirabella-Davis doesn’t seem to notice. Instead, Hunter goes on to reveal harrowing facts about the circumstances of her conception. Before we know it, she escapes her husband and tracks down her birth father. When she finds him, Bennett gets to let loose and show what she can do. Denis O’Hare, as a vile man in the guise of a suburban dad, is such a good actor that he almost gets away with his cringe-worthy lines. We still notice that they’re cringe-worthy.

Swallow may try to convey a message about misogyny, but Hunter is too flat and retro to embody any relatable idea of subjugated womanhood. She only registers as an oddity, and the film as an earnest misfire.

Production companies: Charades, Logical Pictures, Stand Alone Productions, Syncopated Films
Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Denis O’Hare
Director-screenwriter: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Producers: Mollye Asher, Mynette Louie, Carole Baraton, Frederic Fiore
Director of photography: Katelin Arizmendi
Production designer: Erin Magill
Costume designer: Liene Dobraja
Editor: Joe Murphy
Casting: Allison Twardziak
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (U.S. Narrative Competition)

94 minutes