The young bride and expectant mother sits in her modern mansion, looking out at the view. Her hair is perfect, her dress is perfect. Everything is perfect. She picks up a thumbtack and, after careful consideration, puts it in her mouth and swallows it.
“Swallow,” an unnerving feature fiction debut from writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, takes the eating disorder known as pica — the ingestion of non-nutritive substances such as dirt, stones, glass, and other objects — and turns it into a stylish, heavy-handed psychological horror drama with a feminist undertow. The film’s greatest strength is its lead actress, Haley Bennett, who’s on camera for almost the entire running time and who portrays a desperately lonely woman’s journey through self-destruction toward something like sanity. (The film was released for a brief theatrical run but is now available for rental on most streaming platforms and cable systems.)
We don’t know much about Hunter (Bennett) when the movie opens, and, somewhat oddly, neither do her husband, Richie (Austin Stowell), or his parents, Michael (David Rasche) and Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel). The father’s a hard-driving CEO, the son is being groomed for succession, and Hunter is left to her own devices in an empty house. Every interaction with her in-laws (“You should grow your hair long,” says Katherine; “Richie likes girls with long hair”) underscores her belief that she doesn’t belong here. The husband takes phone calls in the middle of her sentences. “I’m so lucky,” Hunter insists.
These opening sequences are filmed with cool, carefully framed dispassion, as if waiting for something to break. That would be Hunter when she learns she’s pregnant and the family exults in the prospect of an heir. Later, as if in a dream, she takes a decorative marble off the coffee table and swallows it. For the first time, she appears happy. She has a secret. The secret is hers.
Without spoiling too much of where “Swallow” goes, that secret comes out eventually — along with a fairly large assortment of household bric-a-brac — and the family clamps down with a vengeance. Director Mirabella-Davis works an interesting territory between the subject’s more ghoulish genre aspects and probing the heroine’s churning emotions and repressed past. Bennett keeps her features immobile — frozen, really — while her eyes and actions tell a different story. You can almost hear the wings beating inside Hunter’s head.
I only wish “Swallow” didn’t hammer its themes home quite so hard, through dialogue, editing, and camerawork that never trust the audience to think for itself. During a session with a therapist (Zabryna Guevara), a secret blithely pops out that seeks to “explain” Hunter, eventually sending her off to a confrontation that’s as emotionally powerful as it is unlikely. More compelling are the quieter scenes, such as the one where she describes her attraction to the textures of the things she swallows.
Ironically, in order to underscore the film’s metaphor of the caged Stepford wife, “Swallow” reduces the other characters to archetypes bordering on stereotypes, a lone exception being Luay (Laith Nakli), the hulking Syrian private nurse hired by Hunter’s in-laws to keep watch over her. He, too, has knowledge of suffering, and his unexpected sympathy for his patient pops him into three-dimensionality despite his too-few scenes.
Other than that, it’s Bennett’s show and her writer-director’s, and they exhibit enough confidence and skill to make “Swallow” worth a look even when it gets hard to ... you know.
Written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis. Starring Haley Bennett. For rent on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and others. 94 minutes. R (language, some sexuality, disturbing behavior)