Grief can drive you crazy; bottling up what you’re lamenting over can push your madness right off the edge, slamming your head onto a pointy rock when reaching the bottom of the cliff. Mental illness is misrepresented in cinema more times than I can recall. Dean Kapsalis directs a thrilling portrait of the burden a mind can hold onto until it eventually snaps. Paced with masterful editing that Mr. Kapsalis spliced himself, an operatic score of calm amongst inner chaos, and a stellar cast of characters to boot, “The Swerve” took me on a road that I didn’t want to stop driving down.
Held almost entirely off the performance of one, Azura Skye does a spectacular job playing Holly, a woman suffering from insomnia whose grip on reality is slipping by each passing day. Holly puts on the best poker face she can for everyone around her at the beginning of the picture. Pretending like everything is fine, the viewer is unaware if Holly has reached the moment of despair that we see her in from the beginning of the picture or if we have already passed that scene. Things go awry during a dinner with the family when the stereotypical crazy sister Beth (Ashley Bell) brings up a childhood memory to shake-up Holly’s insecurity to display petulant dominance.
The character of Beth began to sound some alarms for me. Once more, we have the failure sibling character whose not mentally well, has visited rehab on multiple occasions (which we find out later), and has failed to move out of her parent’s house well into her thirties. Beth’s temper tantrums are part of her being on edge, rendering Beth as one of those far too familiar characters for me to empathize with. To my relief, Beth is offered a little more depth as the film progresses. A close call as mental instability is usually a singular punchline screw up of a character like Beth is or could have ultimately been.
Seemingly, Holly lives the ideal life of the standard American. With a pretty house in the suburbs along with the family package, Holly is your typical hair trigger “American Beauty” wife who’s one day away from a psychotic breakdown. Her descent into madness is seductive because the watcher is unaware of what they are viewing initially. We aren’t viewing another “Joker” or “One Hour Photo” where the audience is conscious of the protagonist’s mental state. Much like being psychologically unstable, we’re unaware that anything is wrong. We go on about our day through the same repetitions. Of course, as time unfolds, so does Holly’s actions. “The Swerve” is one of those films wherein our fascination we want to see how terrible this train wreck can get. Delightfully the damage is FUBAR.
I appreciate a low budget feature that knows how to use its cinematography wisely. Any fool can purchase a 4K camera then pretend to look like a pro. Anyone can bounce light around then call it cinematic. Not everyone can subtly highlight what a character is thinking through color placement or framing. The contrast is high in the film but doesn’t call attention to itself. As Holly begins to slip, the color becomes more intense, but nothing too dramatic to distract us from the unfolding story.
Toying with the conventions of any other psychological thriller, we see the familiar beats. The main character is beginning to go bonkers. Everyone around Holly doesn’t seem to notice or care. The only person that does care can’t help because of extenuating circumstances. The husband is a jerk. The kids are spoiled brats. It’s how Dean Kapsalis molds these conventions that pay off beautifully. One argument you don’t want to make a lot as a critic is the complaint of cliches. Guess why films have cliches? Because that’s how life plays out. One predictable trope after another. We all brush our teeth in the morning, go to work, and so on. It’s the filmmaker’s job to construct the unpredictability amongst the predictable. It’s when the gears shift that our attention must be held instead of us saying, “oh, I know where this is headed.” As a guy who sees a ton of movies, it’s tough to get any reaction out of me. I had some genuine pearls clutching moments here. I think you’ll have them too.