Horror can be a phenomenally surprising genre. For every handful of unimaginative paint-by-numbers slashers, there comes a film genuinely distinctive and unforgettable. Swallow, the debut feature of director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, is one of those films.
On the surface, it appears that Hunter (Haley Bennett) has everything she could want. Having come from a position of no evident career prospects (so we are told) and little money, she has married Richie (Austin Stowell) and into a very wealthy family. She has all the possessions she could dream of, a husband who professes his love for her, and bountiful free time to sketch and pursue her hobbies. And the cherry on top of this perfect life is discovering she is pregnant – Richie and his parents (played by Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche) are overjoyed.
It is at this stage in Hunter’s life that she begins swallowing non-food objects. It starts with an apparently harmless marble. As Hunter places the object in her mouth, you can tell how she savours its texture before swallowing it, a contented smile overcoming her face as if she’s just discovered one of life’s hidden pleasures. Hunter continues with other similar, small objects and, having rooted around in her faeces and washing them, displays them in a row on her dressing table as if a trophy cabinet. These are my victories they seem to suggest. But Hunter progresses to increasingly dangerous sharp objects – a pin is only the start – and it’s clear that her compulsion puts her life at a significant risk.
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Hunter has pica, a psychological disorder characterised by an ongoing obsession with consuming non-food objects. It is especially common in pregnant women (so my research tells me) and is often linked with other emotional or mental disorders, brought about by stress, trauma, and other external influences that result in a lack of control.
As director Mirabella-Davis calls it, these acts are “rituals of control”. Hunter, though it would appear she wants for nothing, is controlled. She is in a relationship that belittles her, presented to family friends as if nothing more than a trophy wife. The catalyst for the emergence of this disorder, it seems, is the discovery of her pregnancy, one that Hunter clearly doesn’t want but is pressured into accepting, no questions asked. It’s her duty to provide a child for this family that has taken her in when she had nothing before, as she is persuaded to believe. And as strange as it might seem, swallowing these objects is something Hunter can control. It makes her feel good in a way she can’t quite describe.
It becomes clear that the causes (as far as one can identify the causes of these things) of Hunter’s pica run deeper than her controlling marriage. In true psychotherapy fashion, we learn of Hunter’s childhood and events that she seems to have repressed or at least not come to terms with. Swallow is a psychological case study, like an incredibly artful training video for student therapists. Through this film, we see the roots of mental health disturbances, the triggers and the consequences. We also begin to see how one may try to cope with a condition that appears, to the viewer and sufferer, to be inescapable. It’s all sensitively done, and having the world’s leading expert on pica as a consultant on the film surely contributed to its depth of authenticity.
I used the word “artful” in the previous paragraph as this is a quite beautiful film – not just its emotional resonance, but its direction and performances, especially Haley Bennett as Hunter. There are some stunning shots that could qualify as food porn: glistening wet ice cubes that refract light like little diamonds, which Hunter crunches on loudly during a family meal as a precursor to what’s to come; a large dollop of wholegrain mustard that Hunter releases from its plastic tub onto her lunch plate in a way that manages to be both disgusting and appetising.
Swallow is a deeply disturbing film. The self-destructive power of our own minds is more frightening than any monster could be. Hunter’s pica reveals our fragility and shows us that we will do almost anything to regain some control over our lives. ⭑⭑⭑⭑⭑