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Movie review: Psychological thriller ‘Swallow’ goes down like nails - and that’s a good thing

Al Alexander
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A scene from "Swallow."

Hunter Conrad is living the life of luxury, with a filthy rich and well-connected husband with whom she resides in an expansive hilltop house featuring panoramic views of the Hudson River below. And clothes! Boy does she have clothes! Now, there’s a baby on the way. What could be more perfect? In Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ deeply disturbing “Swallow,” the answer just might surprise you. It did me. But then, I’m not a woman.

If you’re a woke feminist, you’ll likely just nod your head in recognition of the Lady Dianas and Melania Trumps of the world who are little more than buffed and bejeweled accessories to their husbands’ wealth and success. Just one more extravagant possession, robbed of their entity. Hunter doesn’t know it yet, but her “utopia” is incrementally driving her insane. And that’s what gives “Swallow” its bite, as she comes to the realization she’s a caged animal, trapped in an opulent zoo where huge windows meant for looking out become our opportunity for looking in at a feral creature caged by unrealistic expectations; a place where no one bothers asking, “What does Hunter want?”

Like the equally sublime “The Assistant” from earlier this year, “Swallow” is a movie of subtle observations that when added up evolve into a horror show every bit as scary as “The Shining,” another film where isolation and entrapment bring out the worst in a person. “Hello, Hunter!” But her weapon of rage isn’t an ax through a locked door; it’s something the shrinks call “pica,” a compulsion to ingest tiny objects (marbles, tacks, jacks, safety pins) as a means for victims to reclaim “control” of their bodies. It’s very much a relative of anorexia and bulimia in which an eating disorder masquerades as a silent call for help.

In portraying Hunter’s hushed anguish, Haley Bennett (like Julia Garner in “The Assistant”) dazzles in her ability to speak volumes with nary a line of dialogue. It’s all in the way she holds herself, overwhelmed and defeated. Hunter is meant to be seen, not heard; praised rarely and often berated by her gorgeous and utterly plastic Richie-rich husband, Richie (Austin Stowell), for “stupidly” ironing his silk ties, and by her priggish in-laws (Elizabeth Marvel and “Veep’s” David Rasche) for not wearing her short blonde hair long enough.

Even when she learns of her pregnancy, it’s not “your” baby, but “our” baby, as if it belongs only to Richie and his sociopathic parents, all hungry for an heir (a la “Rosemary’s Baby”) to their warped legacy. For a while, Hunter suffers such insults quietly - until the day she vacuums up a tack. Retrieving it from the lint and dust, she swallows it, painfully at first. Then, a sense of elation washes over her face, a declaration of independence that Bennett communicates exuberantly by letting her long-dormant eyes suddenly come alive. It’s terrific acting on her part. And it’s just the beginning of a performance so intricate and precise it’s little wonder it won her “Best Actress” honors at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Yet, let’s not forget the man who got her here: Mirabella-Davis. In his narrative film debut, the high school classmate of another socially conscious horror maven, Jordan Peele, expands on the impression he left with his directorial debut, the documentary “The Swell Season” about how fame tore apart musicians Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová after they fell in love while making the art-house smash “Once.” He says he wrote the script for “Swallow” as a tribute to his grandmother, who like Hunter, was expected to assert herself only when called upon.

She was a product of the June Cleaver generation, a stay-at-home mom whose duties included effusive praise for her lump of a husband and doing housework in frilly dresses and heels, a shameful caricature hauntingly duplicated by Bennett in one of the movie’s most affecting moments. You’ve come practically nowhere, Baby, the scene cries out. It almost brings a tear. But that’s not what Mirabella-Davis is after. He’d rather shock and disturb, much akin with an obvious influence, Guillermo del Toro. Like that Oscar-winner (“The Shape of Water”), Mirabella-Davis sees the macabre in the everyday lives of the forgotten people and does it with enormous empathy.

Yes, he walks a thin line between celebrating and damning the dangers of pica, which most definitely can be fatal, as evidenced by the amount of blood emanating from Hunter’s body. But then this isn’t an “eating-disorder movie of the week.” It’s about empowerment and taking charge, actions that acquire added impact amid the rise of the #MeToo movement. And the message is delivered in a manner that’s highly entertaining. Scary, too, even after Mirabella-Davis gets bogged down in the needless reveal of the cause of Hunter’s paralyzing subservience. It does, however, open the door to yet another terrific supporting turn from Denis O’Hare as a dark figure from Hunter’s past. But Mirabella-Davis is clearly reaching.

Not to worry, he more than rights the ship in the finale, as Hunter performs a horrifying, yet cathartic act symbolizing the re-establishment of control of her life. And it again involves swallowing, but in an entirely different context. It concludes in an antiseptic public restroom with dozens of women passing in and out, leaving you wondering how many of them are harboring life-altering secrets like Hunter. It’s an unexpected punch in the gut, one you won’t soon forget. Nor should you. But take my advice and keep the antacids close by.

Al Alexander may be reached at alexandercritica@aol.com.

“Swallow”

Cast includes Haley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche and Denis O’Hare. Available on all platforms of video on-demand.

(R for language, some sexuality and disturbing behavior.)

Grade: A-