It’s about time somebody made a movie about pica, the psychological condition, first described by Hippocrates, of habitually consuming non-nutritive objects: soil, paint, glass, needles. Because of pica’s generic intersection between psychodrama and body horror, I would have thought that somebody would have been David Cronenberg.
But Swallow is the work of a new voice — Carlo Mirabella-Davis, in his debut as writer-director — whose approach is no less fastidious, and no less squirm-inducing. While his ear for dialogue could use some occasional polish, his freshman effort is auspicious and intuitive, seeing past the surface of his protagonist’s destructive condition into the cluttered belly of the matter: a controlling patriarchy whose accumulation of micro-oppressions drives the behavior in the first place.
Haley Bennett, in a performance of career-catapulting depth, bravery and ambiguity, plays Hunter, a housewife who appears to be enjoying a charmed life of privilege. Her husband Richie (Austin Sowell) is an upwardly mobile businessman with wealthy parents, whose generosity paid for their comfortable New York manse. An aspiring artist and former toiletries saleswoman “rescued” by Richie at a party, Hunter’s transition to tidy Stepford homemaker is bumpy and awkward, but she loves to tend her garden, maintain a swimming pool free of debris, and prepare dinners that resemble culinary artworks. When she learns that she’s pregnant, it is cause for much celebration from Richie and her in-laws, if not Hunter herself.
There are reasons for her reticence. Richie is an inattentive, emotionally absent Type A male who can’t pull away from his smartphone. Hunter’s in-laws (Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche) are callous and passive-aggressive to a point of unnecessary extremity, one example of the filmmaker’s straining to make a point. But we get the picture: Hunter is appreciated not for her autonomy but for her ability to satisfy Richie. The first line she utters, several minutes into Swallow, is her doe-eyed query to her husband, “Did you miss me?”
Hunter, whose childlike naïveté and developmental stunting have led her to accept her second-class status in the marriage, is a textbook case for pica, which occurs most frequently in pregnant or postpartum women, or in those with physical or mental impairments. Hunter checks off both boxes. By the time she swallows her first marble, we sort-of get it: It’s a visceral excitement, a way to feel alive, an escape from boredom and suffocation. It’s no coincidence that she begins this formative descent into pica after ingesting the pat dogma of a self-development book, recommended by her mother-in-law, that encourages its readers to “push yourself to try new things.”
This sounds like the sort of withering suburban satire in which Todd Solondz specializes, and Mirabella-Davis favors a similarly bright palette of primary colors to paint over his portrait of suburban dysfunction. But Swallow endeavors for a deeper, more psychologically astute depiction, one that, for Hunter, becomes synonymous with a drug addiction. When a sonogram picks up an unusual object in her gut, and Hunter’s pica condition is discovered, she is prescribed a full-time caregiver, prompting more discrete ways of feeding her disease — storing a “stash” of metallic objects under her toilet and away from her watcher’s prying eyes, or scrambling for a fix in her cutlery drawer after he falls asleep.
Swallow missteps in its need to date Hunter’s disease to a psychological trauma from her childhood, and then to resolve it with unnatural tidiness. It also strains credulity in its final third, for reasons that cannot be fully elaborated without spoilers. Mirabella-Davis didn’t need to resort to such psychologizing when Hunter’s self-destructive rebelliousness is already apparent, in her neglected present. She is Nora in A Doll’s House, eating her way out of an elegant prison.
SWALLOW. Director: Carlo Mirabella-Davis; Cast: Haley Bennett, Austin Sowell, Elizabeth Marvel, Davis Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Denis O’Hare; Distributor: IFC; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at Bill Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables; also available for home streaming on demand