Haley Bennett clenches the spotlight for a career-high performance as a submissive housewife suffering from pica, a psychological disorder where she feels compelled to swallow inanimate and sometimes dangerous objects. As the compulsion intensifies her Cinderella marriage begins to crumble along with the illusion of a perfect life.
“Swallow” can be hard to ingest at times, but the disturbing thriller benefits from Bennett’s mesmerizing performance as a woman pushed to extremes in her fight for independence.
After memorable performances in “The Girl on the Train” and “Thank You for Your Service,” Bennett demonstrates her full potential as Hunter, a small-town girl who sold toiletries for a living before she met rich and handsome Richie (Austin Stowell). At first glance, he appears to be Prince Charming when in reality, he has more in common with Elisabeth Moss’s controlling ex in “The Invisible Man.”
Richie and Hunter live in a beautiful glass house overlooking the Hudson River, a present from his affluent and domineering parents (David Rasche and Elizabeth Marvel). It doesn’t take long to recognize how condescending Richie and his parents are to meek Hunter, who’s made to feel like she just hit the lottery by marrying into their family. They’re the kind of people who ask you a question and then brush-off your answer in mid-speech because you bore them. For a minute, it looks like poor Hunter is wandering into a Jordan Peele movie with a bunch a rich jerks. It’s painful to watch and we haven’t even arrived at the swallowing part.
In order to compensate with the pressure of being the perfect wife and now expectant mother, Hunter begins to swallow small objects, first a marble and then bigger and sharper items like a thumbtack and a battery. It’s grueling to watch going in and repulsive to see Hunter wash off the objects and save them after passing through her body. The first warning sign of Hunter’s pica affliction comes while she’s dining out with Richie and his parents. After being neglected, she starts chewing on ice, enjoying the way the texture feels in her mouth.
‘Swallow” moves along at a casual pace until a pregnancy checkup reveals Hunter’s disorder to Richie during an ultrasound. The film written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis amps up the tension quickly in the final act as more secrets are revealed about Hunter’s past that leads to a powerful grasp for control in a scene between Bennett and an excellent Denis O’Hare.
The film was inspired by Mirabella-Davis’s grandmother Edith who developed OCD rituals in the 1940s and didn’t fit society’s definition of a traditional woman and wife. Almost 80 years later, during the era of the #MeToo movement, gender inequality remains a social construct.
“Swallow” is a perfect example of how the feminist movement has many obstacles to overcome. It’s the film’s underlying theme and at times even more disturbing to witness than Hunter’s disorder.