There’s something fitting about the fact that Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ “Swallow” — a provocative and frequently brilliant thriller about the patriarchal control over female bodies — is set in a purgatorial stretch of upstate New York that’s roughly equidistant from both Jeanne Dielman’s home at 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels, and the arid San Fernando Valley that almost suffocates Carol White to death in “Safe.” While he might not possess Chantal Akerman’s visionary patience, or exhibit Todd Haynes’ singular talent for mining horror from metaphor, Mirabella-Davis has crafted a sharp and surprising modern fable around a woman whose environment has been weaponized against her since birth.
The submissive but subtly demented housewife of a standard-issue Patrick Bateman wannabe (Austin Stowell), Hunter spends her days trapped in the gilded cage of a glass home they share along the Hudson River. Portrayed by an extraordinary Haley Bennett — whose forced smile of a lead performance feels like a crack growing along the side of an antique vase — Hunter is as blank and beautiful as a fairy tale princess, and seems happy enough to spend her days plucking leaves out of the pool, playing mindless games on her iPhone, and preparing dinner in an emerald green dress that too perfectly matches the drapes. She doesn’t appear to have friends or a car; you get the sense that she’d get lost if she left her driveway, anyway.
But after learning that she’s pregnant, and coming to grips with the fact that her body is literally no longer her own, Mirabella-Davis’ heroine finds an unusual means to restore a measure of her personal agency: Swallowing the small items she finds around the house and placing them back once they come out the other side. First it’s a marble. Later, a thumbtack. After that, a battery (it seems Pica escalates rather fast). Perhaps it’s some kind of purification ritual. If Hunter’s body isn’t permitted to pass through the world, then at least she can pass shards of the world through her body.
“Swallow” provides ample opportunity for suspense, but much of this perverse story errs closer to satire, as Hunter smirks her way through the first two acts like the cat who caught the canary. Harrowing as it may be to watch Hunter drop all sorts of dangerous metal objects down her throat, Mirabella-Davis’ sharp writing focuses more on the cathartic release that Pica gives her; she isn’t in control of her compulsion, but at least nobody else is either.
This is a movie that was made with its protagonist’s delicate self-satisfaction, as well as her urgency and conviction. Those two complementary energies feed into each other with a glee that sometimes evokes the work of David Fincher, particularly insofar as “Swallow” occasionally seems convinced that the precision of its style is enough to redeem the basicness of its ideas. Hunter always holds her own as a character, but the obviousness of the world around her can be limiting; her husband is a cartoon, and her in-laws (Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche) make that condition seem hereditary.
Even some minor supporting roles manage to fall into that trap: One of Hunter’s co-workers gets drunk at their house, but the open questions the scene leaves behind are needlessly closed shut a bit later down the line. To a certain point, the hermetically sealed nature of the film’s world feeds into the fable-esque vibe, as well as the constrictions of Hunter’s life, but after a while it starts to feel as though Mirabella-Davis is a bit too attached to the cold metal taste of his story’s righteous underpinnings.
And then, in the third act, everything changes. The focus shifts to Hunter’s past — the part of herself she buried so deep that not even she knows where to find it — and “Swallow” begins to digest its heroine’s journey in a radically different way. Hunter explodes every expectation of the woman she’s “supposed” to be, and seizes control over her situation in a way that would have seemed impossible before she learned how to open her mouth.
While the movie veers close to overexplaining itself, it builds to an extraordinary moment that may not have any direct precedent in American cinema; a moment that finds both Mirabella-Davis and Hunter alike expressing the full courage of their convictions (let’s just say that there’s some real poetry to the last thing that Hunter chooses to sink down her throat). This bracing look at the oppressiveness of gender roles may feel a bit familiar for most of its running time, but the film’s breathless final passage suggests — in a rousing and indelible way — that the 21st century might offer bold new endings for such regrettably timeless stories.
“Swallow” premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.