SWALLOW (2020) is one intriguing movie.
Its story about a pregnant woman who suddenly starts swallowing dangerous household objects is certainly one you don’t hear about every day.
SWALLOW could also be aptly titled SUFFOCATION, because that’s exactly what the main character Hunter Conrad (Haley Bennett) seems to be suffering from. She’s trapped in a family that pays her no attention. She’s married to the wealthy and very successful Richie Conrad (Austin Stowell) who’s succesfully climbing the corporate ladder of his father Michael Conrad’s (David Rasche) business.
In a telling scene at a restaurant with Richie and his parents, Richie encourages Hunter to recount an uncomfortable story from her past which she clearly does not want to do, but Richie persists anyway, and midway through the awkward experience, Michael rudely interrupts her, and the conversation abruptly turns to business.
In scene after scene, Richie condescends to Hunter all the while professing his love to her yet never actually hearing anything she has to say about what is important to her. Before marrying into Richie’s money, Hunter had only worked in retail, and Richie’s family makes sure she doesn ‘t forget how lucky she is that Richie decided to marry her.
The film goes out of its way to show traditional food preparation of specialty items that are considered delicious, like lamb, for instance, as rather disgusting, and so when Hunter eyes a smooth beautiful marble, the juxtaposition is clear. It’s a much more attractive object to consume. And in terms of Hunter’s current life, where no one around her notices or cares what she’s up to, it’s her chance to do something special for herself.
Suddenly, the practice becomes an obsession, and she begins to consume some very dangerous objects, a practice that lands her in the hospital. Richie reacts by shouting at her and demanding that she should have told him before that she was weird like this. His family pays for counseling for her, and when that doesn’t work they hire a live-in male nurse to watch her round the clock. It’s all extremely humiliating for Hunter, especially when she discovers her therapist is sharing their private conversations with Richie.
SWALLOW is a disturbing movie on multiple levels.
It’s difficult to watch Hunter swallow things like push pins and batteries, and even more excruciating to watch the effect these items have on her once they’re inside her body. This condition, the eating of objects that possess no nutritional value, is known as Pica. But SWALLOW is about more than just an eating disorder.
It’s about a young woman and the deplorable way she is treated by her husband and her husband’s wealthy family. On the surface, it looks like she’s living the dream. She has everything she wants, money is no object, and she’s free to do whatever she wants. The problem is she has a husband who day after day doesn’t see or hear her for who she really is, which becomes maddening. It’s a portrait of what can happen in life when people don’t listen to each other, when people who are supposed to love each other don’t practice what they say.
One of the plot points involves a rape, and it’s one of the issues that through therapy Hunter learns she’s dealing with. It’s telling that in the entire movie, the scene where Hunter confronts this rapist, there’s a conversation in which this man connects with her in a way that her husband and his family simply never do. Which symbolizes that life is messy and complicated, that people make horrible mistakes, that people can be redeemed, and that one doesn’t have to carry guilt around with them for their entire life. It also speaks to the value of real listening, and the film makes the point that women in particular need to be listened to.
SWALLOW is a rather powerful movie, a drama that shouldn’t be masked by its plot point of an eating disorder. The disorder is only a reaction to the bigger problem which is effectively laid out in this movie, that Hunter and others like her are stuck in one-sided relationships, and she has no choice in the matter, no choice but to hush up and swallow whatever her family hurls at her. The swallow in the title definitely has a double meaning.
SWALLOW was written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis. He does an excellent job with both. The camera helps tell the story, from the aforementioned scenes of food prep, to shots of the interior of Hunter’s body during some of the medical procedures performed to remove the objects, to scenes of Hunter retrieving objects from the toilet bowl after she has expelled them from her body. SWALLOW isn’t really for the squeamish.
And the screenplay is just as strong. It doesn’t take long for the audience to understand what’s really bothering Hunter, and although the movie does take us on a journey in order to fully comprehend Hunter’s back story, we empathize with her from the beginning. The sense of isolation which Hunter endures is suffocating. You completely understand her need to make a connection to anyone or anything, and when she starts consuming these objects, you get why.
Haley Bennett is excellent as Hunter. Bennett has been in a bunch of movies, including roles in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016) and HARDCORE HENRY (2015). And way back when she played the teen lead Molly Hartley in the not-so-good horror movie THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY (2008). Here, Bennett makes Hunter someone who knows she is supposed to be happy, who’s told by those around her that they love her, but she doesn’t feel it. In fact, she feels the opposite, that they don’t truly love her at all. She completely captures the feeling that Hunter is a woman who is trapped, trapped in a situation that to all who see it, would imagine it to be the perfect life, when in reality it is anything but.
Austin Stowell is sufficiently annoying as the supposedly loving husband Richie, as are David Rasche and Elizabeth Marvel as his parents, Hunter’s in-laws, Michael and Katherine.
And Denis O’Hare is only in one sequence, right near the end, but it’s one of the most emtionally moving and satisfying scenes of the entire movie.
SWALLOW isn’t for everyone, but if you can get past the swallowing sharp objects scenes and their ramifications, you’ll discover things that are far more difficult to swallow than push pins and nails.