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‘Swallow’ is a Feminist Body Horror Stunner

2019 Philadelphia Film Festival



Swallow starts off as a very weird, off-kilter, body-horror suspense film. But in its third act, along with a change in visual style, it transitions into something much bigger and greater, which sheds additional light on what came before. Throughout, the film has at its heart a surprising, commanding performance from lead actress Haley Bennett. 

Swallow premiered at Tribeca and showed this week at the Philadelphia Film Festival, and represents the debut of Carlo Mirabella-Davis. It’s an unmistakably feminist film, although we won’t spoil exactly why. 

Bennett stars as Hunter, a young woman newly married to a wealthy douchebag named Richie (Austin Stowell), She is being groomed for a lifetime of Stepford Wife-dom by his parents (David Rasche and Elizabeth Marvel.) Spending her days alone and bored in a gorgeous, modern mansion in what appears to be upstate New York, Hunter is frequently and passive-aggressively undermined by her in-laws, although her husband is more direct in his loathsomeness. 

Soon, she finds herself pregnant, and around that same time develops a real-life eating disorder known as pica: the compulsion to eat inanimate, non-food objects. She eats a marble, then a thumbtack, and other things that are somewhat gross — and even painful — to imagine eating. Is the behvior disgusting, and unsettling? You bet it is. But it certainly leads somewhere fascinating. (Swallow credits a pica consultant.) 

That’s only the setup to a plot which also involves some shocking stuff involving Hunter’s family history. It all leads up to an ending that’s both eye-opening and surprisingly inspiring. 

One thing that’s kind of surprising here is that Swallow is a pretty stridently feminist film, written and directed by a man. This is going to bring out inevitable charges of white-knighting and white feminism — even if the director hadn’t shown up at the post-screening festival Q&A in a fedora, which he did — not to mention virtually certain recriminations from the right, for reasons that will become obvious once you see the film. Yes, it’s a story about the problems of a rich white lady, and there are those who aren’t going to be able to get past that. 

The director has said that he loosely based Swallow on the experience of his grandmother in the 1950s, although his grandma’s issue was not pica but rather compulsive hand washing. And besides — the film is so well-assembled that it ultimately doesn’t quite matter.

Mirabella-Davis paces things just right, but what really makes Swallow go is Haley Bennett, so heartbreakingly effective as Hunter. The actress has in recent years appeared in such films as The Magnificent Seven, The Girl on the Train,  and Thank You for Your Service, never making much of an impression. Just a couple of months ago, in The Red Sea Diving Resort, Bennett played what may very well have been the least-convincing Mossad agent in the history of movies. But here, she gives what’s easily her best performance to date. 

Stowell, best known for playing Francis Gary Powers in Bridge of Spies and Billie Jean King’s husband, Larry, in Battle of the Sexes, shows signs of breaking out of the Generic Handsome Actor bubble, and Rasche and Marvel, who have both been on a roll lately, are outstanding as the overbearing in-laws. There’s another strong supporting performance at film’s end, but I don’t want to give away who the actor is or what he does. 

Swallow is probably going to be a tough sell, and once it arrives in theaters I can see it becoming very controversial. But it’s nevertheless a film that’s very much worth talking and arguing about.

The Philadelphia Film Festival runs from October 17-27. 

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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