Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Starring: Hayley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez
Running Time: 94 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
As domineering husband Richie (Auston Stowell), and his overbearing family put pressure on Hunter (Hayley Bennett) to play the dutiful wife, she becomes overwhelmed and powerless. Desperate to regain control of her life and her identity, Hunter starts to swallow things. As the compulsion increases the more dangerous the objects she ingests become.
The first thing that strikes you about Swallow, Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ beguiling film, is the pin-sharp photography. While set in the United States, the house in which most of the story takes place could be anywhere, it’s so cold and manufactured. Too damn clean to be a home. The steady, still framing isolates Hunter, even while she and her husband are an ostensibly successful couple. Her in-laws dismiss her, there are hints of them thinking she is a classless gold-digger. The swallowing of random objects is attention seeking and it works, so she swallows more things and there is a fetishist reaction. Swallowing is an escape. It’s hers, because she has nothing else, and no privacy. Hunter gets a thrill out of not pretending, even while it exposes her to more sanctions. The tension, and there is tension, is diffused by well balanced comedy, as the absurdity of what Hunter tries to swallow increases. Especially when she hides a bag of knick-knacks like sweets.
Such a strong visual setup along with the narrative that piles emotional pressure on our protagonist, could be a Hitchcockian thriller. Hunter’s situation in a large, modern house reminds us of Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man. However, Swallow isn’t building on or towards an act of violence. There is a formality to the narrative. A sense of ceremony (stripping of personality), but it’s not as machine-tooled or twisted as Hitch would do. On the contrary, Swallow is more modern and relevant; rather than making us complicit in delighting in Hunter’s misfortune, we sympathise. The compulsion she suffers is a real thing, called Pica. In Hunter’s case, a cry for help by which the viewer, unable to answer, is tormented.
There is a revelation, although one in keeping with the tone of the film. Otherwise, not much of anything happens, but it’s brilliant. That there isn’t a contrived plot to drive the story shows an astonishing faith in both the idea and Hayley Bennett. The other trick up Carlo’s sleeve is that his story is real. People will watch this and immediately identify with Hunter’s considerable, quiet torment.
Carlo’s film is a quietly agile and sly film. It can be funny, moving and emotional, placing absolute faith in the audience. And that faith is easily found with Hayley Bennett’s fabulous and understated performance. She spends a great deal of time alone and shoulders the measure of the film with a balance of dignity and humour.
Second Sight’s HD transfer is marvellous. The overall look of the film is cold; harsh lines, smooth wood and glass, but it’s peppered with coded colour, like a neo-noir. You can read the film while nothing is being said and the crisp design is perfectly realised on Blu-ray. As the film and the story progresses, it becomes softer and warmer, and the presentation continues to shift accordingly. This coalescence of the theme and imagery of the film continues right through the end credits.
Nathan Halpern’s score is unintrusive, but effective and like everything else in this presentation, it’s nicely balanced. There’s not a lot going on to test a surround sound track, but the environmental sounds of the large, lonely house are very effective. And such a quiet presentation just makes the gulp of a marble all the more excruciating. Intimate, even.
- Audio Commentary by Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis and Producers Mollye Asher and Mynette Louie
- A Personal Story: interview with Carlo Mirabella-Davis
- Something Bubbling Underneath: interview with Mollye Asher
- The Process: interview with editor Joe Murphy
- Metal and Glass: interview with composer Nathan Halpern
- A Room of One’s Own: Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Swallow
- Knife Point: a short film by Carlo Mirabella-Davis
The collection of features, between an enthusiastic commentary and several interviews, delve into both the making of the film and its themes. Carlo Mirabella-Davis is at the centre and is enjoying sharing the process of what is clearly an important film for him to have made, and it’s interesting to learn how he is friends with Jordan Peele. Jordan’s Get Out is more of a genre piece, yet you can see both films have similar intentions.
This is a superb limited edition by Second Sight, presented in a solid case, with a book and artwork by Hayley Turnbull. This is how a prestige release should be done and it’s inspiring that show such support for a film like Swallow.