‘Swallow’ effectively uses horror to showcase a woman’s fight for control

Haley Bennett shines in this genre-bending tale

(Photo courtesy of the official

(Photo courtesy of the official "Swallow" Facebook page)

By Lauren LaMagna, Arts Editor

There is nothing more interesting than the subconscious human psyche; it proves that we are so much more than what we appear to be. People don’t just decide on certain things without a reason: there’s always an internal and ingrained motivation, even if we can’t see it. Over the last few decades, directors have taken this concept of the human psyche and applied it to films that transcend every genre. Some, of course, are better than others, but the ones that do set a precedent in psychological filmmaking. Like science fiction, the psychological thriller can tackle any story at any size. It’s arguably one of the most diverse subgenres in the storytelling canon and when it works effectively, it will sear into its audience’s mind for weeks to come.

The film “Swallow, ”currently available on Amazon Prime, iTunes and YouTube, is the latest film to tackle the female psyche. The film centers around Hunter Conrad, play brilliantly by Haley Bennett, a newly pregnant woman. Even though this film is set in a contemporary setting, Hunter is nothing more than a trophy wife for her wealthy husband, ironically named Richie, played by Austin Stowell. Hunter cooks for him, cleans and irons his clothes and must be the perfect decoration on his arm. If anything is less than perfect, she becomes subject to his rage, which is presented as intense verbal abuse. It doesn’t help that the only other person Hunter interacts with is Richie’s mother, who is just as hostile. But as a former salesgirl with little financial freedom, she has nowhere else to go. Technically, she should be to grateful to now be part of the upper class – and she is. According to Richie and his mother, she hit the jackpot.

Once Hunter finds out about her pregnancy and alerts Richie and his family, a heightened level of stress overcomes her. Her stress and anxiety builds with the constant controlling manner of her mother-in-law who insists on controlling what she eats along with pressuring her to have a son. Unsure how to deal with it, she seeks comfort in Richie who tells her to try something new every day, which leads to the next day where Hunter observes a marble of hers and eats it. To the audience and Hunter’s surprise, she likes it and continues to eat other small inedible objects.

Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, in his feature film debut, perfectly blends genres as the film mixes drama, horror and thriller into one while knowing exactly what it is at its core: a character study on an oppressed woman in a patriarchal society. Davis’ camerawork, which slowly brings the audience into his protagonist, allows them to feel as suffocated as Hunter. The audience sees Hunter constantly trip over her words and get cut off by her husband and in-laws. When she finally develops Pica, the neurological disorder characterized by the urge consume non-nutritional items, the audience isn’t completely disgusted by the action. While they may be turned off or disturbed by Hunter’s decisions in the film, they understand that this is Hunter’s way to gain some control of something in her life.

Bennett’s performance is truly extraordinary. As an audience member, you root for Hunter to take control and escape but to also overcome her disorder. Throughout the entire film, Hunter is completely alone and begging for help to escape. She’s desperate for control of her own life and body that she will do anything in order to feel again. Bennett understands that Hunter is a woman suffering at the expense of the expectations of her gender with a hunger to regain her identity. In result to being surrounded by one-note characters that are present only to antagonize Hunter, Bennet shines and demands focus in every shot. Audiences feel Hunter’s pain, physically and psychologically, through Bennett’s raw and breathtaking performance.

As any well-made film, the technical elements reflect back onto the protagonist’s conflict. Katelin Arizmendi’s cinematography and Erin Magil’s production design are two seamless examples of brilliant collaboration. As the film starts, Arizmendi coats Hunter in shades of red. It isn’t until her Pica develops that the colors start to become brighter and more expansive, highlighting to the audience that she is obtaining control but in a destructive way. As Hunter’s hunger and determination grows, the tension and conflict also begin to rise for all parties involved. The beautiful multi-million estate that Hunter and Richie live on soon becomes a battlefield between Hunter and everyone else. It is here, as the cinematography changes so the audience pays attention to specific aspects of the house that they didn’t before, that the film becomes an anxiety-induced thriller; this continues until Davis turns the film upside down once more.

Figuring out what genre to place “Swallow” in is a difficult task. Some may define it as body horror while others will say it’s a meditative expression on the female experience; both of which are absolutely terrifying and effetely told within the film. Helmed in a breath-taking performance, “Swallow” is a unique gem that shows just how terrifying and powerful our instinctive intentions are, regardless of how destructive they can be.

Lauren LaMagna can be reached at [email protected] and followed on twitter at @laurenlamagno.