Swallow review: An unsettling psychological thriller
Ivan Radford | On 25, Apr 2020
Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis
Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel
Watch Swallow online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW TV / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play / Sky Store
Some horror films are harder than others to stomach. Swallow, which screened at FrightFest last year, takes the genre’s ability to unsettle your stomach to squirm-inducing extremes.
It does so by almost showing you nothing at all – this gut-churning, deeply upsetting psychological thriller is decidedly non-graphic, and all the more chilling because of it. The film introduces us to Hunter (Haley Bennett), a young illustrator who gets hitched to Richie (Austin Stowell), the heir to a wealthy business empire who is primed to become a high-flying CEO – much to the pleasure of his parents. Rather than being empowered by his shared success, though, Hunter feels exactly the opposite: isolated and invisible, engulfed by her husband’s dominant career status.
You wouldn’t know it to look at the picture-perfect pair, living in a luxurious home on the Hudson River. But the closer the camera gets to Hunter, the more her idealistic surface begins to crack, and we see her domestic bless quietly fracture into bite-sized chunks. Alone, suffocated and with no say in what’s happening, she develops a strange compulsion: to swallow any and every inedible object around her.
What starts out with a marble soon becomes more harmful, and Swallow escalates the stakes at a steady but dread-inducing pace. The more externally dangerous it gets, the more personal it becomes; this is a story of internal power and authority acted out in the most intimate way possible, an alarming account of how one woman goes to desperate measures to take back control. The fact that she’s also pregnant with Richie’s baby contrasts that sense of autonomy with the physical servitude expected of her as his baby-carrier.
Control over one’s own body is a pertinent theme in an age where helplessness really resonates, and the script provocatively juggles the horror of her actions with Hunter’s defiant drive to subvert the expectations of her obedience. It helps that the cast are eerily precise. Haley Bennett maintains an icy exterior throughout, letting us in to her vulnerability just enough to experience the emotional impact of her behaviour, while Austin Stowell is as toxic as it gets, surrounded by a cringe-inducingly smarmy and self-obsessed family.
Making his impressive feature debut, writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis has a precise handle of tone throughout – from the pastel, glossy colour palette of their house to the unnerving sound design – ultimately drawing out the feeling of twisted catharsis as someone in a position of supplication slowly begins to take back their own life story. One extra twist too many in the final act may well leave a slight lump in the throat, but this is a deftly restrained and understated study of abuse, choice, eating disorders and intestines – a triumphant horror story of independence that’s difficult to digest, but will be crawling under your skin for days.
Swallow is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW TV, as part of an £11.99 Sky Cinema Month Pass subscription.