'Swallow': Haley Bennett Astonishes In Housewife Body Horror Drama [Tribeca Review]

It’s easy to believe that trapped housewives belong to a bygone era, with revelatory literary works like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) and Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” (1963) taking on the kind of mythological esteem reserved for horrors long past. A century or two later, it seems we’ve evolved beyond such hidebound sexism. But “Swallow,” the revelatory first feature from Carlo Mirabella-Davis is here to tell us, in no uncertain terms, that the past isn’t quite as past as we might like to think.

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“Swallow” finds Hunter (Haley Bennett) confined in a pleasant prison. The daughter of neglectful, middle-class Evangelicals, Hunter has apparently won the jackpot by bagging blue blood Richie (Austin Stowell). Her in-laws have bought them a beautiful house and, freed from the common constraints of professional work, Hunter is tasked with beautifying both herself and her home as she waits, dutifully, for Richie to return. (Bennett’s first line: “Did you miss me?”) However, when Hunter becomes pregnant, she develops an unusual, unstoppable and horrible urge to eat inedible things. As she graduates from marbles to more dangerous fare, Hunter must figure out how to navigate her inherited helicopter family and regain control of her life.

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This unpredictable film is a staggering accomplishment in its storytelling, visuals, and performance — most especially due to Bennett, whose performative vapidity engenders laugh as often as it does gasps. The layered film develops from satirical fairy tale to heartfelt drama with unprecedented grace, in part because of Bennett (who can cry on cue as easily as she can coax out a chuckle), but also because it is an astonishingly fine-tuned work of art. A combination of vintage sensibilities (Hunter’s pin-straight bob and pearls) and modern convenience (iPhone games help while away the day), “Swallow” is a salient reminder that female oppression, like a good A-line skirt, is timeless.

This temporal obfuscation by Mirabella-Davis is no doubt intentional, as the director shared in a post-screening discussion that the film was inspired by his grandmother’s own institutionalization and lobotomy. A housewife herself, the director’s grandmother developed a handwashing compulsion that led to her husband-approved medical torture. As even modern women, especially in higher economic classes, are still compelled to wilt at home so their husbands can flourish professionally, “Swallow” morphs from dystopian myth to visceral reality faster than Hunter can pass a battery.

The film is a breathtaking accomplishment for Mirabella-Davis, but its brilliance would be squandered without his all-star female contributors. Not only does Bennett give the performance of her life (for which she was rightly honored with the Tribeca Film Festival’s Best Actress award), production designer Erin Magill and costumer Liene Dobraja team up with cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi to birth a visionary and singular work of genius.

Like a better version of Bryce Dallas Howard-led “Black Mirror” installment “Nosedive” — surely no accident, as the film is executive produced by Joe Wright — “Swallow” is acerbic, stylish, and sympathetic-gag-reflex-inducing. Like one Tribeca audience member, the bracing “Swallow” might make you faint, whether because you can’t watch Haley Bennett gulp down a thumbtack or because you’re swooning over its ingenuity. Or both. [A]

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