The horror genre is ripe for exploring the intricacies of the #MeToo experience in a very visceral way, as we’ve seen most recently in films like “The Invisible Man” and “The Perfection.”
But when the theme is shoehorned into a narrative seemingly only in an effort to comply with the cultural dialogue, it becomes an uncomfortable and awkward viewing experience. That’s what happens throughout writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ “Swallow.”
There are really two contending films inside “Swallow” that, if given the opportunity and the space to do so, could have been fascinating as separate entities. Instead, Davis opens his narrative with an interesting premise perfect for its off-kilter horror indie veneer — a newly pregnant suburban housewife (Haley Bennett) who starts inexplicably ingesting inedibles (think crayons and batteries). Right away, this begs myriad questions: Is she trying to kill herself? Is she trying to kill the baby?
These aren’t questions that are easily answered, and for that matter even sufficiently explored, throughout the film. Perhaps Hunter enjoys the feeling of having something in her mouth that doesn’t belong there. Or maybe the idea of flirting with death excites her, right before she vomits the now-bloody substance out of her gut as shown in several horrifically graphic scenes. But this is a woman on the cusp of motherhood, living in a gorgeous home with her oh-so-sweet husband, Richie (Austin Stowell, “Fantasy Island”), who’s so attentive to each of his expecting bride’s needs.
Then something shifts ever so subtly in the film as we get closer to Hunter’s perspective. Bennett, who by this point has effectively unsettled the audience with Hunter’s shocking habit, brings us into this homemaker’s gaze with unflinching ease. Hunter is the perfect dinner party host for Richie’s puffed-up friends and coworkers. Being with child has made her an even greater attraction at the fancy soirees, as Richie gazes with satisfaction.
That’s boosted by costume designer Liene Dobraja’s precise floral A-line skirts and pale-colored blouses for Hunter, which are also seen throughout the wardrobe of Richie’s mom Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel), falling right in line with their cookie-cutter, predictable suburbia.
Hunter also impeccably irons and lays out all of Richie’s clothes for work — except that one time when she, as he describes it, ruined the one tie he could wear with his favorite suit. No problem, he says, as she cowers by the door. Nothing is really established to indicate that Richie is particularly overbearing, which is a bit frustrating as it’s clear here that Hunter is frightened or worried about this snafu. It makes you wonder: what has Richie been doing to her to make her like this? There isn’t a response to that.
Instead, we get back to the bewildering safety pin- and thumbnail-popping obsession that Mirabella-Davis has more distinctly chosen to identify with his protagonist. But he doesn’t properly pinpoint her madness, if it even is one. Actually, it’s referred to as a “compulsion” by the therapist Richie sends her to when he finds out about what she’s been doing. While in treatment, Hunter brings up a whole other layer of her life that’s been previously buried and manages to divert our attention from her life-threatening routine to a dark history involving her mother.
It’s that needle-drop that thrusts the film into a startling new direction that is punctuated by rape, leaving behind an additional slew of unanswered questions about Hunter’s problem. Seriously, is Hunter a harm to herself and her baby? Does she even want to be a mother? These are desperate queries as she becomes more unhinged, ultimately abandoning her home and husband who, in a moment of anger and fear for his wife, reveals an element of the monster Hunter has been anticipating all along. But is Richie just worried about his family or is he actually the villain Mirabella-Davis wants us to believe he is?
While editor Joe Murphy (“Adam”) deserves praise for unapologetically and refreshingly planting the film squarely in the woman’s perspective, he does no favors for a character like Richie who’s integral to our heroine. In fact, the reliance on Hunter’s POV makes her come across more disturbed than perhaps Mirabella-Davis intended and even harder to empathize with. We can certainly conclude that trauma may have impacted her terrifying habit, but it doesn’t answer her desire or fitness to be a future mother.
Though Hunter claims to be seeking “control,” as she tells her therapist at one point, that is instantly undermined by a behavior that is, for all intents and purposes, almost totally irrational. It’s one thing to be in fear of your home environment. It’s another to want to break free of what Hunter may view as a caged existence (and subsequently jeopardize the life of her child). And it’s something else entirely to be suffering from unchecked PTSD, which the second portion of the film would have us believe.
What is true about Hunter, her diagnosis, and her life at home? “Swallow” makes no effort to make a coherent statement about any of it.