Carlo Mirabella-Davis' Swallow: Psychological Fiction That Makes Eating Disorders Relatable

Haley Bennett in Swallow. Image: Courtesy of IFC Films; An IFC Films Release.

While many have labeled Carlo Mirabella-Davis' first solely directed feature film (he has directed a few shorts and co-directed the documentary The Swell Season) Swallow, as body horror, this viewer found it more compelling and sympathy-arousing than frightening. While many of the scenes are cringe-worthy, the level of empathy it extends towards Hunter, the main character, seems to better earn the label domestic fiction or psychological fiction. Far from making her an object of horror, viewers are invited into Hunter's story, giving us an inside view into the mind of someone with pica, a psychological disorder that compels a person to eat non-food objects.

This distinction feels important, as on-screen representations of pica thus far have mainly been in the line of the 2010s reality-TV show, "My Strange Addiction." In this program, each episode was dedicated to following a person around that had a compulsion to do something that others would find weird or off-putting. Far from being an empathetic treatment, "My Strange Addiction" sensationalized the addiction, spending ample time showing the person doing things such as eating mattress fillings or drinking gasoline -- their loved ones gawping on the side and saying how concerned they were. Eventually the person seeks a medical professional and has to be faced with some hard decision, but not before the audience has gotten their fill of the "shock and awe" tactics used. These shows used someone's pain as entertainment and tap into base desires of people to slow down when passing a car wreck.   

In this character study, we meet newly married housewife, Hunter (Haley Bennett; Girl on the Train). Although her marriage to the wealthy Richie seems ideal at first, Hunter's unhappiness becomes all too clear soon enough. Every decision must be approved but not just Richie, but his parents, as well. Richie makes a fine speech at the couple's housewarming party, but on the average night, he's emotionally distant, spending most of his time looking at the glow of his mobile screen. The suffocating walls of suburban malaise make her feel imprisoned and the realization that she's now pregnant only seems to exacerbate the desperation she feels.

Hunter finds release in swallowing non-digestible household objects -- starting with a marble, and soon escalating to more dangerous matter, such as thumbtacks or small ceramics. It's not until the couple visits the clinic for their first ultrasound and the contents of her intestines become visible that her deeds become apparent to the doctors and her husband. Upset by her actions and concerned about the baby growing inside Hunter, Richie and his parents hire Luay, a male nurse to monitor Hunter and keep her from swallowing objects again. But as you can imagine, this additional control only makes Hunter feel trapped. As Hunter visits a therapist and begins to share about her past, we viewers begin to understand the reasons for what only looks like selfish madness.

Although pica has historically been associated with nutritional deficiencies, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders it's now also recognized as a mental disorder, rather than a purely physical condition. Hunter's condition doesn't seem to be physical at all; in her case, we infer that it's caused by a deep internal pain and guilt she hasn't worked through. Hunter's journey with her therapist into these deep water is, along with Lars and the Real Girl, one of the most empathetic treatments I've seen given towards a mental disorder.

Spare, but powerful, dialogue is used effectively, particularly between Hunter and her husband, Hunter and the therapist, Hunter and Luay, and Hunter and an important person she visits at the end. But, much of the story is told through images alone. The camera spends a great deal of time examining Hunter's face as she reacts to her husband, his parents, her life, and her pregnancy. During the scene where she swallows a thumbtack, she stares at the object of intent, memorizing its every line. She hesitates for a moment, and then swallows. In that instant, her face clears and we see the peace and relief in her eyes. Soon after, the physical pain of the object traveling down her digestive season takes over. In this one scene, Hunter must emote a spectrum of emotions and the camera captures them in succession. Scenes such as this center Hunter as the main character and allow viewers to relate.

In another segment, Hunter, feeling her world close around her, hides under the bed. Luay the nurse (Laith Nakli; 12 Strong), ever the professional, finds her. Rather than dragging her out, he gets under the bed with her, pats her arms, and says, "You're safe here." Seeing this pair, who met each other as foes, reach an understanding at last make for a moving moment and image.

Hunter's search into her past finally ends in a final crescendo, in which she confronts her past and takes charge at last. While many will feel conflicted at her final moments and decision, it's clear that her pica is motivated by far more than just selfishness or boredom. Far from being the horror movie expected, Swallow takes viewers inside the mind and body of a person filled with self-loathing. While many of the moments that happen are gruesome to consider, very little gore actually happens on-screen. Most of it is left to the imagination.Being allowed to see her break through is a reward that will make this somewhat squeamish journey completely worth it. 

Rating: 4 out of 5