Trigger warning for eating disorders.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), pica is a condition that revolves around “eating items that are not typically thought of as food and that do not contain significant nutritional value.” Said items can include ice, soil, paper, and other items that can cause life-threatening internal damage, such as metal, glass, and other sharp objects. NEDA notes that pica is commonly associated with iron-deficiency anemia, malnutrition, and pregnancy, with the body attempting to correct a nutritional deficiency resulting from these conditions through untraditional means.
In writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ debut feature film Swallow, the central character, an angelic housewife named Hunter (Haley Bennett), develops pica shortly after finding out she is pregnant. But Hunter’s compulsion to swallow dangerous objects is less about correcting a nutritional deficiency and more about taking control of her own destiny. Carried by a brilliant performance from Bennett, Swallow is a disturbingly effective psychological study focused on the extreme lengths one will go to declare independence in the face of oppression.
Trouble in Paradise
On the surface, Hunter’s life is perfect: she spends her days wandering around a gorgeous riverside home that would put the Parasite house to shame, decorating and cooking and waiting for her handsome husband, Richie (Austin Stowell) to return home from his high-powered job at his family’s company. Richie’s parents, Michael (David Rasche) and Katherine (Elizabeth Marvel), paid for the young couple’s glamorous home and don’t mind asserting authority over Hunter’s life as a form of twisted compensation for their generous gift; in one casually but painfully invasive scene, Katherine gives Hunter the same self-help book she read while pregnant and tells Hunter she should grow out her short blonde bob because “Richie likes his girls with long hair.”
Hunter goes to great lengths to make sure that food is on the table and that she looks fabulous when Richie arrives home (her wardrobe rivals that of Mad Men’s Betty Draper for its stylishness as well as its impracticality for chores), only for him to spend more time reading emails on his phone than listening to her talk about her day. Richie will repeatedly pressure his wife to tell a story to his parents until he finally overpowers her reluctance, only to not step in when Michael rudely interrupts Hunter mid-sentence. He claims to love his wife unconditionally, but when Hunter accidentally ruins one of his ties while ironing it, his frustration with her weighs in the air dangerously, like an ax above her pretty head — one more wrong move and who knows what he might do.
Hunter’s pregnancy brings great joy to Richie and his parents, but Hunter’s reaction to the news is decidedly more muted. One night, she starts aggressively crunching ice at dinner, unable to resist the siren song of the sparkle and sharpness of the cubes in her glass. Soon after, she picks up a small red marble from a carefully curated decorative trinket box and, after only a moment’s hesitation, swallows it whole. The feeling this elicits in her is one of great triumph and satisfaction. When the marble goes through her digestive system and ends up in the toilet, she fishes it out and puts it in a prominent place on her vanity table, a proud reminder that she is capable of doing things that Richie and his family would never imagine.
From there, Hunter’s obsession with swallowing unusual objects grows exponentially in both the number of things she swallows and the degree of danger; everything from thumbtacks to needles to even a battery finds its way down her throat and later, to the growing lineup on her vanity table. It isn’t until an uasound gone awry that Richie and his family realize what’s going on, and when they do, they go to great lengths to correct Hunter’s behavior, from paying for therapy to hiring a nurse to keep an eye on her during the day. But if anything, the severe crackdown on her already limited freedom only increases Hunter’s desire to swallow things; it becomes the only way she can assert her own identity in the face of her smothering in-laws. As Hunter tells her therapist when asked how she felt after swallowing something, “It made me feel…in control.”
A Fractured Fairy Tale
Hunter is cherubically beautiful, with rosy cheeks and snow-white skin to rival a Disney princess, but it’s no secret that she had few prospects before marrying Richie; as she embarrassedly tells Katherine, before she met him she was working in retail at a toiletries store and dreaming of becoming an artist. Her marriage to Richie was supposed to be a way out of a stifling, working-class life, but Hunter all too quickly learns that while Richie’s money might have freed her from needing to work for a living, she isn’t truly free at all. Classism and sexism both conspire to keep her trapped in her (beautiful, spacious) cage.
Swallow does not glorify Hunter’s eating disorder, but nor does it harshly judge her for her actions. Rather, it empathizes with and explores why she would go to such extreme lengths to find herself. That her pica begins in earnest when she finds out she is pregnant is no coincidence; in the final third of the film, she reveals a dark secret about her own origins that puts her own reaction to the news she is carrying a child in stark relief. From there, Hunter’s attempts to come to terms with her past and to take control of her future become increasingly forceful, her usually childlike voice growing sharp and insistent. Her transformation from meek, soft-spoken wife to angry, independent woman is truly remarkable, thanks to Bennett’s revelatory performance. It is a cliche to say she is the heart of the film, but her deeply sensitive portrayal of Hunter centers the film in an all-too-believable reality. Marvel is also a standout as the subtly sinister mother-in-law who strives to sound as though she has Hunter’s best interests at heart when in actuality she is thinking only of herself.
Swallow may be a horror movie — if you are a woman I can’t see how you would view it any other way — but its production design, courtesy of Erin Magill (Brittany Runs a Marathon, Hearts Beat Loud) is anything but dark. Indeed, I can’t recall a horror film with such sumptuous use of reds and blues since the original version of Suspiria. Hunter’s aspirations of being an artist are reflected in the candy-colored decor of the house as well as her extensive wardrobe (credit to costume designer Liene Dobraja). It’s clear that until she begins swallowing things, this is the one method of expressing herself that Hunter has at her disposal, giving the impression that she is a little girl playing dress-up in a life-size dollhouse. The gorgeous decor in this paradise of a home, from the sky-blue drapes Hunter hangs in their in-home theater to the sheer red filter she applies to one of the windows, makes the things that occur inside all the more terrifying in contrast.
Like the thumbtack Hunter initially struggles to ingest, Swallow is both a painful and satisfying experience. While Mirabella-Davis can verge on the heavy-handed in his storytelling — the metaphors and symbolism are none too subtle — it doesn’t lessen the impact of the film.
What do you think? Does Hunter’s predicament sound believable to you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Swallow is released in theaters in the U.S. on March 6, 2020. You can find more international release dates here.
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.