Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on the new portable.
I knew when I first heard about Swallow that I was going to watch it. I was, in fact, on the verge of requesting it through interlibrary loan, but having connections has its perks. A librarian, as I was checking out a few things, asked me if I wanted to see what they’d just added to the catalog. Swallow was one of those movies, and I took it home, which I guess makes me the first person to watch this copy of it.
On the surface, Swallow is about a woman with pica, which is a mental disorder in which the sufferer ingests “non-nutritive” items. In other words, people with pica eat things that aren’t food. But, the movie is about so much more. I thought it would be the pica that was interesting, but now that I’ve seen the film, I’m not entirely sure it’s really about the pica. No, Swallow is a great deal more than a mental disorder of the week.
Hunter (Haley Bennett) is a new, young housewife and recently pregnant. On the surface, her life appears to be ideal. Her husband Richie (Austin Stowell) has an incredibly high-paid job that he has more or less inherited from his father. Hunter and Richie live in the kind of house that most people can only dream about, and Hunter no longer has to worry about making a living or, really, doing much of anything other than decorating the house and planning the nursery. For someone whose work experience to this point was a toiletries counter, it’s a significant upgrade.
But it’s also very clear that Hunter doesn’t have a great deal of control over her life. She is talked over and considered little more than just an accessory for Richie, almost literally a trophy wife. This fact is hammered home when, at a dinner with Richie’s parents (Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche), she is in the middle of a story about her childhood and is interrupted by Richie’s father and ultimately ignored. It’s in this moment when her pica first emerges—she starts chewing on her ice.
And from there, the pica becomes something much more. Given a book on pregnancy by Richie’s mother, Hunter comes across a passage that suggests doing something unexpected every day. And so she does—she swallows a marble. Eventually, when the marble passes, Hunter fishes it out of the toilet, cleans it off, and places it on a little shrine she creates for such things. What she swallows eventually includes objects like pushpins, batteries, and rocks. No one knows about this until her first ultrasound, where it is discovered that there are objects that she has not yet passed still in her digestive system.
From here, Richie and his family starts to take more control, putting Hunter in therapy with an analyst (Zabryna Guevara), who she soon discovers has been instructed to tell Richie everything she finds out. The family also hires Luay (Laith Nakli), who is supposed to be an assistant and nurse for Hunter but is clearly a guard hired to prevent her from doing anything additionally destructive. Rather than get into the third act here, I will leave the summary at this point. Suffice it to say that Hunter reveals some issues in therapy that will come into play here, and the suffocating control of Richie’s family doesn’t help much.
As I said at the top, I expected Swallow to be about the pica, but it’s not. The pica that Hunter experiences is just a symptom for her deeper problem. This isn’t deep psychological analysis from me here—this is pretty plainly spelled out in the film. Hunter swallows things because it gives her a feeling of control. She says it’s because she likes the way things feel in her mouth, but it’s clearly about giving her a sense of controlling her own life. She has no control over anything else—she is fully dominated by Richie and his family, left to make ultimately meaningless decisions about the color of curtains. She’s also essentially without "meaningful" skills, having only worked retail before marrying into significant money. Hunter is clearly trapped by her life, expected to do nothing more than metaphorically stand on a shelf. The pica gives her agency.
This is a hell of a movie. I can’t imagine that it’s going to get a great deal of play come Oscar time, and that’s a damn shame. Haley Bennett is brilliant in this, and is immediately sympathetic. Moreover, she continues to be sympathetic even when she is eating dirt or swallowing AA batteries. Her plight is completely understandable, and while her reaction to it is extreme, it is understandable as well.
Amazingly, this is also director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s first feature-length film. It’s far more mature than that. Swallow is minimalist in many respects, but Hunter is a fully fleshed character, and is completely relatable despite the film having little dialogue.
I expected this to be interesting and good. I didn’t expect it to be this good.
Why to watch Swallow: You haven’t seen anything like this.
Why not to watch: There are moments where it’s hard to watch.