Swallow (2019) [Final Girls Berlin Festival]

Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s “Swallow” is one of the most bizarre but important dramatic thrillers of the year. It’s a movie about important ideas involving self mutilation, the expectations of women in modern society and how one horrible act can change the way that we live our lives. I was originally drawn to “Swallow” because of the titillating trailer featuring Haley Bennett, but “Swallow” is so much more than an endurance test for our gag reflexes. It’s a very complex and often times heartbreaking look at a woman dealing with the pressures of life and her imperfections in unusual methods.

On the surface, Hunter (Haley Bennett) appears to have it all. She’s expecting her first child, she’s a housewife, she seems content tending to her pastel colored home and doting on her Ken-doll husband, Richie (Austin Stowell). However, as the pressure to meet her controlling in-laws and husband’s rigid expectations mounts, cracks begin to appear. Hunter develops a dangerous habit, and a dark secret from her past seeps out in the form of a disorder called pica — a condition that has her compulsively swallowing inedible, and oftentimes life-threatening, objects.

Carlo Mirabella-Davis’s film is a beautifully directed and wonderfully photographed drama that delves in to the antiquated expectations still thrust on women and how Hunter kind of takes it all on in stride. She’s a woman with an ambiguous past who spends most of her time basing everything she does on what other people want. The biggest development involving her pregnancy is what shifts everything askew, causing her to deal with a future where she’s anything but a dainty homemaker. Hunter’s life is picturesque on the outside, but writer Mirabella-Davis allows us a deeper look inside the finer points of her dynamic with her husband and his family.

She’s beholden to their lifestyle and their often imposing nature makes it painfully clear that she’s facing a life where she’s mostly window dressing for husband Richie. One of the more degrading moments involves the aftermath of Hunter’s first incident where she becomes the center of a social gathering, forced to endure the glares and murmurs of a group of strangers that have become painfully aware of her mental condition. The more Richie and his family judge and force themselves into Hunter’s condition, the more severe her addiction becomes. It’s a grotesque bit of body horror, but one with an emotional backdrop that makes it so fascinating to watch.

Is she trying to commit suicide? Is she forcing imperfection only she can see? Or is she trying to kill her unborn child? Haley Bennett steals the movie with her stunning portrayal of a woman desperately trying to cling to a persona that she thinks will please everyone in her life. When she learns that’s impossible, the self destructive tendencies gradually transform her in to someone degrading mentally, but also coming to terms with herself and the inherent beauty of her flaws. “Swallow” is an outstanding, hauntingly beautiful film filled with evocative overtones about the long lasting effects of trauma.