By Andrea Thompson
Funny things happen when people get everything they want, don’t they? Just take Hunter (Haley Bennett), a woman trapped in her own version of the feminine mystique. She has all those supposedly elusive things that sum up Everything A Woman Could Want: immaculate home, a nice, handsome husband with a good job, and the kind of blonde hair and trim figure that means she fits right in to a life other woman only dream of.
But has everything we’ve ever wanted ever lived to the hype? Even if we’ve seen this story before, few have encountered Hunter’s method of coping, which is swallowing various household objects. What might be called a quirk quickly becomes a drug, and like any junkie, Hunter soon has to resort to more extreme methods to get her fix, not only swallowing objects more often, but increasingly harmful ones, and that perfect facade she calls her life doesn’t so much crack as shatter.
Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis doesn’t pretend that Hunter’s life is anything is but a facade; the only question is just how far it goes. How much can Hunter rely on her husband Richard (Austin Stowell), a man who at first seems well-meaning and supportive, if a little absent at times? His coldly appraising parents? And what about hers? Just how much of Hunter’s life is her own? The latter question is especially relevant, both for our political climate and Hunter’s personal and bodily freedom, given that she’s pregnant.
Hunter’s pregnancy is in fact the catalyst for her compulsion. It can’t help but make her situation real, as much as she repeats how lucky she is. Even if there’s no overt reason for her to be unsettled, something’s clearly off, and her status as a mother-to-be makes things clearer. She wasn’t seen before, and this development ironically makes her more disposable, a delivery system for the real prize, and later, a nurturer for it. When her actions cause her in-laws to deem her less than fit, the scrutiny and shaming pregnant women are subject to are magnified to an extreme degree.
Such quiet psychological thrills only hit the mark if an actor embodies the Norma Desmond line of thinking, that of faces rather than dialogue. Thank goodness we have Haley Bennett’s face and impressive set of skills, because we don’t always have the dialogue. Davis manages to give us some truly squirm-inducing moments, and we never lose sight of Hunter’s pain as she fights for control over her life and body. It’s just the perspective which doesn’t always ring true. At first, there are a series of small moments, like the sad man who goes around asking women for hugs, or the movie cutting off after Hunter’s doctor asks about her pain, both of which raise the question of just how invested “Swallow” really is in actually listening to its (female) protagonist.
It isn’t until the end, where Hunter goes to find the one responsible for her beginning, that things really unravel, and she’s revealed to be another female character whose backstory is motivated by violence. Even worse, she can’t truly move on until she gets validation from a male character, proving how unthinkable it still is for many male creators for women not to crave their approval. Calling your movie feminist, or even giving a woman the lead role, does not make a movie so if it mostly reduces that lead to the men in her life, or in this case, in her past. “Swallow” comes closer than most, but as the song goes, almost doesn’t count.