James Jay Edwards reviews Swallow, a psychological thriller about a unique eating disorder, written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, and starring Haley Bennett.
There’s an eating disorder called “pica” in which the sufferer craves and consumes objects that are not normally thought of as food, things like dirt, hair, or cigarette ashes. Sounds like a good movie concept, right? That’s the underlying basis of Swallow.
Swallow is about a young woman named Hunter Conrad (Haley Bennett from The Girl on the Train) who is newly expecting a child with her unfeeling husband, Richie (Whiplash’s Austin Stowell). In between being the perfect wife and keeping up her perfect home, Hunter begins to feel cracks in her perfect façade. So, she starts swallowing non-food items like batteries and thumbtacks. Her family puts her into therapy and, while trying to get to the root of her problem, she opens up a huge can of worms.
(Swallow, theatrical release poster, IFC Films)
That may seem like a thin plot, but rest assured, there’s more to Swallow than that. Its surprises are best left as just that—surprises—for the viewer. The film itself is packed with bright colors and eye-popping visuals, but its subject matter is as dark and disturbing as it comes. And writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis pulls no punches with Swallow’s cringeworthy, seat-squirming, anxiety-inducing imagery. More than once, the camera steadies itself on something that shouldn’t be eaten as Hunter fiddles her fingers around it, then down the hatch it goes. It’s tense and maddening. And brilliantly captured.
Mirabella-Davis cut his teeth on short films and documentaries, but the filmmaker proves that he can tell a compelling and engaging full-length story with Swallow. The narrative itself is rather simple, almost more of a character study of a woman in peril than it is a completely developed plot. But Hunter’s ordeals are visceral. Her journey is one that the audience feels as if it must watch to completion, and does so with eyes looking through fingers, not believing what is being seen, yet also not being able to look away.
(Swallow, IFC Films)
Although there are no demonic spirits or masked killers in Swallow, it’s still a horror movie. Like the best psychological thrillers, its horror is derived from the ideas and concepts presented in the movie. On the one hand, there’s the very physical risk of harm that Hunter is putting herself through by eating all of these inedibles. But there’s also the poor woman’s struggle with her own mind as she finds herself stuck in between her unhappy marriage and her tortured past. Her compulsive behavior is an attempt at finding something in her life that she can control, even if succeeding winds up killing her. And Swallow is made all the more terrifying by the fact that pica is a very real condition from which thousands of people suffer every day.
After writing the script, Carlo Mirabella-Davis consulted with the world’s leading pica expert, psychologist Dr. Rachel Bryant-Waugh, who wrote a case study of Hunter to help flesh out the character. Dr. Bryant-Waugh also coached up actress Zabryna Guevara (Gotham), who plays Hunter’s therapist in the movie. So, it’s safe to assume that not only the disorder of pica but also the ways in which the medical profession deals with it are depicted accurately in the movie. Which is fascinatingly uncomfortable to watch. Hard to believe, but harder to look away.
(Swallow, IFC Films)
As clinically precise as Swallow may be, it is not a sterile procedural. Far from it. It’s a gut punch. It’s a movie unlike anything that you’ve likely seen before, and not a movie that you’ll forget anytime soon. Be careful with it.