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« The Winners of Tribeca 2019 | Main | Review: Long Shot »

Tribeca 2019: "Swallow"

Here's Jason Adams reporting from Tribeca once again...

I will only ever experience childbirth from the one side, and you know what? I'm good with that. All due credit to the mothers out there who manage to keep the world populated -- including my own, who was in labor with me for ten hours [shudder] -- but I'm thrown into a tizzy if I stub my toe. Some of the horror stories I've heard from female friends about the experience have turned my all of my reproductive organs into ash. 

I over-share all of this because this has always made me a prime sucker for pregnancy horror films. Rosemary's Baby, as I've covered here before, is my favorite film of all time. And we just got a doozy of a new take on this sub-genre with Swallow, writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis' fantastic new film starring a riveting Haley Bennett as an expectant mother whose isolation and surprise hesitancy spirals her down an unexpected path...

Hunter (Bennett) and husband Richie (Austin Stowell) are so idealized as the ideal young couple that you're tempted to check behind their ears for the price-tag. Blond and beautiful, trim and kind, and yes, Richie's rich, the two live in a fabulous mid-century glass castle perched above the Hudson (shot like gangbusters by up and coming DP Katelin Arizmendi, who also shot the great Cam and is currently doing second-unit on Denis Villenueve's Dune re-do) -- their home is close enough that Richie can make it to the city for work every day but far enough away from anywhere that Hunter's got nowhere to go. So she stays home and finds ways to occupy her day until she can make dinner -- she vaguely tells people she's an artist but all we ever see her doing is playing some mindless game on her phone (and ouch, that one leaves a mark). 

Everybody else seems to realize that Hunter and Richie are perched on the precipice of having their first child, the thing that will finally give her empty days some of that much ballyhooed "meaning," as they call it, but when the moment of affirmed insemination does actually come early on in the film it seems to strike Hunter as a shock all the same. Bennett's performance is sly as the first snap of sentience in a Stepford robot -- her malfunctioning, her self-realization, takes some time and one winding, ragged road. 

And it takes some solid, firm shape, too. In one of the baby books that Hunter's gifted by her mother-in-law (Elizabeth Marvel, who is always staring at Bennett as if she might shatter or possibly be the dumbest person in the world, one of the two) Hunter is told to do something to surprise herself every day, and to Hunter that apparently means to take a small marble off the impeccably arranged coffee table bric-a-brac, and swallow it whole. And then wait. For it to come out the other end. And repeat.

As the items Hunter swallows grow bigger and stranger and more dangerous, Hunter and Richie's perfectly arranged life begins to unravel like twenty-five feet of intestines stretched across their gravel driveway. I called Swallow a horror film at the start of this review (and there are reports that people have fainted at screenings) but it's really most akin to Todd Haynes' [safe], which I consider a horror film but you might not. Both Haynes and Mirabella-Davis are interested in the ways in which women internalize trauma, and the way that trauma then fights its way up to the skin's surface, capillaries or bust -- Hunter and Carol White would've thrown a heck of a dinner party, but they'd both be heaving in the bathroom before it was through.

Hunter's problems aren't quite as dodgy and enigmatic as Carol's -- Hunter gets sent to a therapist and much like that marble and its many friends we gain some insight into her character as she comes clean -- but then Mirabella-Davis muddies it up again in the best way in the film's strange and beautiful final act, which I won't get into in specifics but which lands the film on such a deft and daring note you feel woozy with awe and gratitude. Granted we're in the new stages of proud parenthood but Swallow looks like a film I'll be thinking about and re-watching for years to come.

Swallow plays tomorrow at Tribeca

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Reader Comments (2)

Wow. Sold.

May 3, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDan H

Possible Oscar nomination for Bennett? Sounds way too "out there" for the Academy.

May 5, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

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