Hunter (Haley Bennett) lives in a large, beautiful house with her handsome and successful husband Richie (Austin Stowell). The couple seem to be very much in love and Hunter is newly pregnant. One day, seemingly out of nowhere, she decides to swallow a marble. This is only the beginning of a journey into pica; a mental illness in which sufferers are compelled to eat non-food objects.
For its first half, Swallow is, somewhat ironically, a film about surfaces. Writer/Director Carlo Mirabella-Davis shows us the shiny outer surface of Hunter and Richie’s marriage. They’re both young and beautiful, besotted by each other and living a life of luxury in their impeccably designed home thanks to Richie’s lucrative work. Cracks are, however, immediately apparent in that surface, first when Mirabella-Davis makes sure that we know both the home and the job are gifts, provided by Richie’s parents. It becomes clear that the same is true of the house, and of the marriage. The home is straight out of a design magazine, all modern lines, the design is varied, with some colour, but the space always, even as Hunter puts a red gel over one of the windows in what will be the nursery, feels cold and uninviting. As for the marriage, early in the film Richie tells his wife “You couldn’t do anything wrong even if you tried”. That won’t remain true.
Outward appearance also draws Hunter towards the first objects she consumes. With the marble and the next item, a pushpin, the camera lingers on the details of the objects, emphasising their design, making each seem more notable for their form than their function. This close up examination of the items is how the film wants to bring us in to Hunter’s mind, to be as drawn to the aesthetics of these things as she is and perhaps come to some level of understanding of her need to consume that thing. This is further underlined in later moments, as she painstakingly creates what amounts to a shelf of trophies after reclaiming the objects.
The shell around Hunter cracks more and more as the film goes on and as the people around her try to fix that surface appearance. Mirabella-Davis doesn’t make it easy for us to know how to feel about the ways in which Richie and his family try to help Hunter. Again the surface of what they do is fine, if flawed, but how many of us would know how to approach the same issue? But again, when that begins to fracture, it reveals a darker undertone to a good looking facade.
Thee touchstone for much of the film is Todd Haynes’ excellent [safe], but rather than having an allergy to the things around her, Hunter has a need to ingest them. The film and Haley Bennett’s excellent performance don’t even propose much of an answer as to why she finds comfort in pica, and ultimately it doesn’t matter because this isn’t a film about everything becoming better by the time the credits roll. In one very interesting moment she rings her mother (who we’ve never seen) and the voice at the other end of the phone is not just distant, but faintly robotic. This, without it ever feeling overplayed or too on the nose, is something we find throughout: the world seems just a little fractured, like Hunter doesn’t quite fit where she is. The third act takes a new direction, digging into Hunter’s background. Good as she is in the rest of the film, this is where Bennett truly excels, whether it’s eating handfuls of dirt in a search for comfort or in a moment of intense, but largely quiet, confrontation.
Swallow has a complex take on metal illness. It doesn’t show pica the way many films depict neurodivergence—as a cute quirk—or offer easy answers. Thoughtfully shot and written, it leaves us on an uncertain note, but is all the more provocative for that.
Swallow is available to stream from GooglePlay.