Swallow is the first outing as a solo feature filmmaker for writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis (who co-directed the documentary The Swell Season), and I’m not sure he knows what he wants it to be: a horror film or a unique take on mental health and the effects of PTSD. He nibbles on both and makes a eerily atmospheric first two acts that David Lynch would certainly enjoy, but the film chokes on the final act, resulting in a forgettable movie that could and should have devoured the horror genre whole.
Swallow begins with a brilliant idea — a pregnant and very bored housewife named Hunter (Haley Bennett) is profoundly ignored by her husband (Austin Stowell) and in-laws, alluding to something not being right with them. We later learn they aren’t bad people, just rich brats who never earned an education in good manners. Hunter cures her boredom and isolation by swallowing indigestible things: marbles, pushpins, mounds of dirt, you name it. At one point we see her gazing at her “trophies,” items she has swallowed and successfully retrieved. Does she poop them out or regurgitate? One object is a giant padlock. If Mirabella-Davis is going for horror, we need to cower as we watch Hunter’s agonizing pain of retrieving a padlock from her body. If you’re not going to show the jarring part of the retrieval process, then don’t show the trophies. It only raises a mystery that’s never answered. Added to that, this needed close up shots of what she’s about to swallow, the cringing sounds as the weird object goes down her throat, like gargling and saliva and hearing the object slide down her esophagus — just writing that gives me chills, imagine hearing it? Sound is highly effective in horror films, and it’s unclear if this is what Mirabella-Davis wanted, which makes Swallow a frustrating and forgettable film. That’s a shame.
The ridiculous third act switches gears, divulging things that would understandably cause mental illness and PTSD for Hunter, but it’s not clear if it’s connected to or why she’s taken up swallowing dangerous items as a new hobby. We want to sympathize with and better understand Hunter’s pain and why she seems to be self-medicating (or self-punishing?) by swallowing dangerous things while she’s pregnant with a child, but we are never shown or told.
As the lead, Bennett is staggeringly good. She brings fascinating nervous and uneasy energy to her Hunter, which makes us wonder what’s going on in her head. She’s always a treat to watch on screen (see: The Girl on the Train)and this film should have been a big hit for her — she can lead a film flawlessly, even a deeply flawed and messy one like Swallow.
If Swallow is meant to be a horror film, it fails spectacularly. It’s hard to be horrified watching Hunter swallow pushpins and other dangerous inedible knickknacks when she’s doing this during a montage with ’80s pop song “This Is the Day” by The The blasting overhead. It kills the gross out and wince-inducing effects of horror which is what the title, poster and advertising suggests it’s going to be. If Swallow is meant to be about mental illness and PTSD from an abusive past, that’s not clear, either. The movie is full of clever ideas, missed opportunities, and storylines that never come together, making it a disjointed film. We can only imagine what could have been.
Starring Haley Bennett and Austin Stowell. Written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis. Rated R.