One of the most fascinating developments to keep tabs on in genre film is the push to diversify storytelling at a large scale. As long as horror continues to exist, there will always be chain saws, monsters, gore, and all the other tropes we've come to associate with the genre. But now more than ever, there is ample room to experiment with depicting less traditional but all-too-real social horrors like oppression, injustice, and a general lack of power.
As times change, so do our fears. And in turn, so does the genre that represents the things that scare us at our core. And in a time when everyone's anxieties are heightened, it's validating to see a film like Carlo Mirabella-Davis's Swallow, which understands that sometimes the scariest things are grounded in reality.
On the surface, Hunter (Haley Bennet) seems to have the life she's always dreamed of. She's married to Richie (Austin Stowell). He has a good job, and they have a beautiful house together, and a child on the way. But Hunter is not in control of her life, at least not really. Her marriage aptly mirrors the power dynamics of one from the 1950s: he makes all the money while she stays at home to take care of the domestic duties. She largely doesn't have a life outside of being shown off to Richie's coworkers or carrying a child.
With that dynamic comes an inherent inequality. In one scene, Richie chastises Hunter for ruining his silk tie by ironing it instead of steaming it. She's made out to be a fool, and she goes along with it in her attempts to avoid conflict. Hunter often apologizes for herself and her feelings to make Richie happy when he doesn't extend that same courtesy to her.
But something changes when Hunter finds herself with an odd compulsion: to eat a thumbtack and swallow it whole.
Hunter quickly becomes transfixed by swallowing things—a thimble, a chess piece, a battery—as a way to assert power over herself and take her own body back. She finds an odd satisfaction as they grow in difficulty and danger, but it's no worse pain than an existence that isn't truly her own.
While it's thematically disturbing, Swallow is rarely too hard to watch. In fact, the film's stunning cinematography by Katelin Arizmendi—who also worked on Cam, another crucial social horror—creates a serene and vibrant environment that is almost impossible to look away from. The film's sound, on the other hand, is best described as anti-ASMR, with every swallow and extraction amplified with an unsettlingly intimate clarity.
Haley Bennett gives a remarkably multilayered performance. She's not just a doting housewife, but a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown with unconventional coping mechanisms and a fervent urge to stop being consumed by others, especially the men who have hurt her beyond repair.
This yearning for control through consumption in Swallow reminded me of Kaucylia Brooke's 1989 photomontages Unknown Deviancies (What a Dish). In one panel, a series of photographs of a woman devouring food are spliced and composited like film strips. Much like Hunter's compulsions, how she eats is not depicted in a delicate way—it's real, raw, and ugly. And in each margin reads a thesis comparable to Hunter's own carnal desires for independence and autonomy.
"I became the devouring mouth of mythology. Oh, they had called me unsavory. A dirty dish who desired and was desired. But I had to have my cake and eat it too. It was no longer good enough to wander in uncertainty. Chaos became my battle cry. I said with other women we were able to taste our own textual body. We would not be vomited out. It was a tough battle."
Swallow soberly examines how suffocating it is to be a wife forced into a trophy case. The script is ultimately flipped, though, when she acquires trophies of her very own in the quest for control. She will not be vomited out if she can help it—not again. v