In a world tirelessly preoccupied with what women eat, director Carlo Mirabella-Davis has found a way to make the topic feel fresh with Swallow, a feminist body horror film about a dissatisfied young housewife who starts a new diet. But it's not an eating fad or a fast food binge or whatever supplements Goop is shilling: It starts with a marble, and Swallow spins out of control from there.
Opening with limited release today, Swallow centers on a young woman named Hunter (played by Girl on the Train's Haley Bennett) as she navigates married life with her husband Richie (Austin Stowell) who often isn't home, leaving her to pick drapes and play phone games in their icy glass box of a house in New York's Hudson Valley. Despite the trappings of a nice life and a baby on the way, Hunter seems empty. Without a job and with social interactions mostly mediated by Richie, she lives a Betty Draper-esque existence, though in modern times.
When she starts eating household objects—a marble, a push pin, a battery, and other more dangerous things—it takes a while for anyone to notice. Eventually, they do, putting a name to what Hunter is experiencing: pica, an eating disorder that involves compulsive eating of non-food objects, and it wasn't simply pulled from thin air as a plot device. In an unhappy marriage, Mirabella-Davis's grandmother experienced pica in the 1940s, and her husband institutionalized her for it; decades later, their story has inspired Swallow.
"I really felt like her story was extremely important because there's this strange old guard of patriarchy and sexism that I think is being revitalized by the Trump administration," Mirabella-Davis told VICE in an interview. Referencing Tucker Carlson's vocal disdain for feminism, Mirabella-Davis sees the gaslighting his grandmother experienced in the 40s as something not only of the distant past. "I felt that my grandmother's story could fit into a lot of current issues in a very timely way."
With Hunter's pica diagnosis, Swallow reveals more unsettling turns in its vision of feminist horror, both visually and thematically. It takes the act of eating—something that's already endlessly policed when it comes to women—and makes it traumatic through scenes that aren't exactly gory, but show just enough viscera to make you wince with discomfort. And in contrast to the supernatural bent of 2014's It Follows, another female-led indie horror classic, Swallow is disconcerting because it feels real, putting a lens on the simmering state of horror that women still live through in a world controlled by men.
The decision to set Swallow in the present-day—as opposed to the easier-to-write-off norms of the 40s—was intentional. Hunter might be a modern woman with money and material pleasures, but she's still beholden to her husband, and her lifestyle is entirely dependent on him. While that arrangement works for some people, it's clear that it doesn't work for Hunter; the expectations of that life and the empty satisfaction that it brings force Hunter to shrink herself.
"This is a world that she's creating based on what she feels the expectations of her are… It's performative. It's like [her] projection of the American Dream, and [what she] thinks a wife should be," Bennett told VICE in an interview. Perhaps catalyzed by her pregnancy, Hunter realizes she's no longer satisfied subsisting within those expectations. According to Bennett, "it's as though, I've kind of swallowed and forgotten who I really am, like it's so deeply buried. The compulsion leads her into this awareness."
Bennett's performance takes up the vast majority of Swallow's screen time, and her performance as Hunter is memorably haunted. "There is an apathy and a detachment to Hunter from the start of the film, and she really takes a journey into discovering these other facets of her trauma," Bennett explained. "But I looked at Hunter as if she was wearing masks, and there were layers and layers of armor that she had put on… I think that I have experience in that, of trying to conform to what society wants for me and what I think people want as opposed to what I want."
While Swallow depicts the privileged experiences of a wealthy, white woman—as one character in the film even implies to Hunter—Mirabella-Davis thinks the story resonates more broadly. "I think it's a film that is about embracing who you are and fighting back against the modalities that are constraining you and restricting you and also dealing with the trauma from your past that may also be factoring in," he said. "I think that's, hopefully, something that is a universal tale."
Swallow makes it clear, however, that getting to that point of confidence and acceptance isn't easy. As Hunter tries to control her life through the compulsive behavior of unrestrained ingestion, it only leads to her being controlled even further. Swallow's message isn't deeply buried, but nonetheless, it's effective—and its presentation is sure to make your skin crawl.