It’s hard to describe what Swallow is or isn’t without giving away the plot. So little happens over the course of the film that it can be summarized in a few short sentences: girl gets pregnant, girl swallows objects, girl runs away from husband, girl has an abortion. Obviously, with a 95-minute runtime, things are slightly more substantive than four sentences can convey. But the thrust of the plot is there. What isn’t there is a clear indication that Swallow is a story about a woman seeking control.
In the film’s opening scenes, Swallow depicts its protagonist Hunter (Haley Bennett) tending to the near palatial home she shares with her husband Richie (Austin Stowell). At first, it’s difficult to find any kind of sympathy for Hunter. She is a wealthy, bored housewife suffering from a level of ennui so severe it would make Sofia Coppola’s characters jealous. But as the film continues, it becomes more and more clear that she is a blank slate, caught up in the archaic expectations of her husband and his parents.
Over the course of the film, Richie gradually transforms from a benevolent, if disengaged, partner to an infantilizing abuser who treats Hunter as if she cannot know her own mind. Before she begins swallowing things in earnest, Richie and his parents dismiss and override her, disregarding her wishes and ignoring her obvious cries for help. Initially bored but largely unbothered, Hunter’s sudden pregnancy seems to flip an internal switch, and Bennett does an excellent job of relating Hunter’s deep ambivalence about bringing new life into the world. Her husband and in-laws are overjoyed, but not even producing an heir seems to mitigate the frustrating disregard she’s come to expect from them.
Bennett makes it clear with very little dialogue and a threadbare script that she is dying for sweet release from this prim and proper family. With little more than a worried expression or a raised eyebrow, she conveys how much Hunter is trying in earnest to be the ’50s-style housewife that her husband’s family expects. But instead, she finds herself suddenly set adrift as she realizes that she will never be the kind of girl Richie expects his wife to be. Her husband is in search of a willing trophy. Hunter is willing, but she’s no trophy.
And so begins the real story: Hunter suffers from a psychological disorder called pica, which compels her to ingest inedible objects. A marble, a battery, a ceramic figurine— no matter how pointy, toxic or dangerous, down the hatch it goes. Hunter keeps track of the objects as they exit her body, lining them up on her dressing table like precious but illicit trophies. She knows her behavior is irrational, but as she puts it when her horrified husband demands an explanation, “I wanted to, so I just did!”
With so little of her life truly left up to her, swallowing things allows Hunter a small measure of control in its purest, most distilled form—bodily autonomy. For as long as her pica is a secret, it is almost a competition she is having with herself, daring her body to accept and then safely reject objects that remain foreign to it. Even as Richie and his parents close ranks in an attempt to restrict her behavior, finding ways to swallow things against their wishes is a manageable act of rebellion.
Despite knowing that her pica is dangerous to both her and her baby, there are points at which the audience might find itself rooting for Hunter to get her way. Not to harm herself, but simply to have the freedom to choose. Richie treats her disorder as a personal affront to the image he is trying to project to the world, with little regard for his wife’s actual well-being. In that context, Hunter’s ability to swallow things becomes not an indication of her mental unfitness, but an assertion of her independence.
It’s clear to the audience that Hunter’s pica is a cry for help, but Richie and his parents interpret it as defiance. They push her into therapy and hire a burly home health aide to babysit her in her home. Despite being compromised by her in-laws, Hunter’s therapist does help her get to the root of her issues. When she was a young woman, Hunter’s mother was raped by a man she flirted with at a bar who then followed her home and attacked her. Hunter was the result of that act of violence. It’s here that it becomes clearer than ever that Hunter is no more than an incubator for the family.
Hunter’s reluctance to engage with the violence of her past manifests as a willingness to swallow an escalating series of dangerous objects. By the film’s end, her conservative bob has been replaced with demure ponytails and her stylized clothing with a comfortable sweater, part of a series of decisions that will undoubtedly reverberate throughout her life, ut for once, the choice is all her own.
Swallow is currently available on VOD.