I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
If Swallow had been made in the 1950s or early 60s, it would have been radical. Today, it’s banal. Which is perhaps why writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, with his first narrative feature, chose to co-opt a slick postwar aesthetic for this slice of housewife horror. When she isn’t sporting Laura Petrie sweaters while she decorates the room for the baby on the way, lonely Hunter (Haley Bennett: The Girl on the Train) vacuums, in a vintage-y full-swing skirt, the modernist glass box perched atop the Hudson she shares with piece-of-shit Richie (Austin Stowell: 12 Strong). Her hobbies include playing casual games on her smartphone — just about the only concession to the 21st century — and gulping down marbles, paper clips, and other dangerous nonfood objects.
Pica, this eating disorder is called, and it’s a real thing, but here the feminist metaphor is overstretched and depressingly stale even amidst the would-be shock of one woman’s bodily self-torture. Hunter is dealing with real trauma, which only begins with her treatment at the hands of her horrible husband and his toxic parents (Elizabeth Marvel [Dark Waters] and David Rasche [Men in Black III]); later, there will be a wildly unethical therapist! But her isolation, as Mirabella-Davis depicts it, feels less like the authentic part of spousal abuse that Hunter is enduring and more like a flawed component of a man’s spin on a woman’s pain, as does the way that Hunter ultimately confronts the source of her bone-deep psychological distress. This is true of so many films by men that hope to be feminist: their “understanding” of women seems to come only reflected in clichés and stereotypes.
There are nice touches here: Hunter eating the pages of a self-help book is sharp and sly, and Bennett’s performance is both terrific and terrifyingly dedicated. But her striking physical resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence is emblematic of the overall lack of imagination when it comes to how women are depicted onscreen: women are only seen when we adhere to physical, emotional, and cultural constraints that are limited, narrow, and blinkered. Swallow isn’t scary; it’s shallow.
Swallow was the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ Movie of the Week for March 2nd. I could not endorse it, but for a counterpoint to my review, read the comments from other AWFJ members on why the film deserves this honor.