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Arts & Culture, Reviews

‘Swallow’ stands out with a chilling portrayal of domestic isolation

In Mirabella-Davis’ psychological thriller, Haley Bennet shines in the role of the picture-perfect housewife who gradually unravels

By
Staff Writer
Thursday, April 23, 2020

Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ directorial debut, the psychological-thriller “Swallow,” reveals the horrors of a woman’s alienation from her marriage, struggles with mental illness and battles with an eating disorder. 

Against the muted backdrop of the Hudson River Valley, Hunter Conrad (Haley Bennett) — dressed in brightly-colored cocktail dresses reminiscent of submissive mid-1950s housewife narratives — wanders through a modernistic glass mansion. She is a prisoner of domestic ennui. 

Married to Richie (Austin Stowell), the new-appointed CEO of a successful family business, Conrad is expected to be the obedient, reticent housewife who does chores, cooks meals and looks pretty for her husband. Occasionally, she is allowed to choose curtain colors, or decide where to place flower beds. But more often, she is simply paraded around as Richie’s beautiful, soft-spoken wife. Conrad’s loneliness is palpable as she’s among her husband’s suave crowd of friends and coworkers, in the still air of an empty house after he goes to work or during a home-cooked dinner with him. 

She kills time by playing games on her smartphone and tries her best to please her uncaring husband and condescending in-laws with a complacent smile and frequently uttered appreciation for her good luck in marriage. 

When Conrad discovers that she is pregnant, however, the facade she has built of a glazed-eyed contentment begins to crack. 

Mirabella-Davis presents an unconventional depiction of Conrad’s unraveling through pica. Individuals with pica have an impulse to consume items with little to no nutritional value. The first object that captivates her is a marble. Held up against the sun, the marble glimmers, bringing with it the distant sound of waves washing against the shore and a child’s carefree laughter. Slowly, Conrad puts it in her mouth. She rolls the marble around with her tongue, relishing its texture. She swallows it, and a smile flickers on her lips. 

What follows is a nauseating list of items that accumulate on her mantelpiece: a thumbtack, thimble, porcelain figure, battery. In an otherwise subjugated existence, Conrad feels a gratifying sense of accomplishment as she gulps down each object. For once, she seems to be the master of her own body. 

Mirabella-Davis is careful to not glorify pica in the film, however. Conrad’s overwhelming desperation for a sense of control and the agony induced by her compulsive appetite takes center stage as truly uncomfortable scenes unfold, to the horror of the audience.  

Mirabella-Davis slowly reveals Conrad’s long history of traumatic guilt, which plays a part in triggering her body dysmorphia. Tragically, self-harm through disordered eating seems to be the only way she can claim ownership over her body and feel independent from the coercion of those surrounding her. 

But as the condition of Conrad’s disorder worsens, her life becomes increasingly constricted, to her detriment. Luay(Laith Nakli), a family friend, is employed by Conrad’s in-laws, frisking her before she can relieve herself in the bathroom alone. When she refuses to live in a psychiatric ward for the rest of her pregnancy in order to prevent her from harming the baby, she is threatened with divorce.

Conrad realizes that she can no longer endure the utter deprivation of agency. She needs to live of her own accord.

This is where the film stands apart from other horror films which involve pregnancy and body dysmorphia: There is no transformation involving the supernatural, nor are there violent scenes of the female lead running from an assailant, as was most recently seen in Leigh Whannell’s “The Invisible Man.” The horror of “Swallow” is grounded in a grim portrayal of a disorder. While exaggerated to fit the psychological-thriller genre, the plot sheds a serious light on the harmful effects of obsessive-compulsive spectrum behaviors and disorders — something too often played for laughs in Hollywood. 

In that sense, the premise itself is subverted. By beginning with the disintegration of a picturesque domestic image, the audience is made to follow Conrad in a heartbreaking process of confrontation and realization as she regains control of her life. 

The film closes on a meaningful swallow and viewers attain catharsis with a relieving sigh. 

As the end credits roll, Alana Yorke’s “Anthem” plays and women walk in and out of frame. Like Conrad, they all have their own stories, their own uphill battles to fight. It’s a provocative film in a turbulent time as more and more male misconduct against females is exposed, especially in the film industry. 

It’s not easy to be a woman. Yet, as Yorke sings in a minuet-esque melody — there is hope for a breakthrough.

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