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Blu-ray Review: Swallow – “A stunning and remarkable drama”

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Written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis (Knife Point), Swallow stars Haley Bennett (The Girl on the Train), Austin Stowell (Whiplash), Denis O’Hare (Dallas Buyers Club) and Laith Nakli (12 Strong). Not getting a UK theatrical release thanks to the pandemic, Swallow was just released on Blu-ray on the 22nd of November by Second Sight Films.

Hunter (Bennett) appears to have everything. A gorgeous new home paid for by her in-laws and a hot, successful and rich husband, Richie (Stowell). But Hunter isn’t well, Mirabella-Davis hints at an already underlying issue early on, focussing big big close-ups on Hunter fastidiously arranging her food and items in her home. OCD may already be lurking in Hunter’s background, but so is a deep-seated trauma associated with a dark family secret.

When Richie discovers that Hunter is pregnant he doubles down on his controlling behaviour, passive-aggressiveness and gaslighting of Hunter. Under the weight of that, the pressure from her well-off and powerful in-laws and her own issues around pregnancy thanks to her past, Hunter mentally buckles. Seeking some kind — any kind — of control over herself and her body she begins ingesting small and pretty trinkets from around her home. At first, tiny marbles, but soon, pins and other larger sharper, more dangerous objects.

When Hunter becomes hospitalised and diagnosed with pica: an eating disorder where people eat non-food items, Richie is livid, not sympathetic and puts her under the watch of a shadowy and dangerous-seeming live-in “nurse” Luay (Nakli). Now more trapped than she even was before Hunter needs an escape and help. Will that come from a psychiatrist intent on unearthing the secret she has been hiding, or perhaps from a figure from her past, Erwin (O’Hare)?

A stunning and remarkable drama with elements so partial as to nearly be tinges of the gothic, horror and psychological thriller, Swallow is powerful and has plenty to say. Mirabella-Davis hints at genre tropes to enhance his film’s mood and Bennett’s performance, but never uses them as an easy shortcut. Swallow could go full genre picture at any moment, but Mirabella-Davis always holds tight and instead throws all the energy and spotlight at Hunter’s predicament and Bennett’s actually immense portrayal.

Naturalistic, pitiable, devoid of any self-confidence, utterly self-deprecating and absolutely owned by the rich family she thought she was lucky to marry into, Bennett makes Hunter heartbreakingly sad, even more so because she initially thinks she is happy, even when she is so clearly a victim. She doesn’t even seem to realise herself until she is asked, “Are you happy? Or are you pretending to be happy?”

When she begins to develop pica we are so entranced by her performance and desperate for her to elicit any kind of control over her life whatsoever as to nearly be as happy as Hunter is when she initially enjoys the feeling of these items in her mouth. The more Hunter spirals out of control of what she is ingesting the more control she seems to take back of her life. She is quite literally getting a taste of freedom.

Surrounded by excellent performances, especially of note of which are Stowell as her utterly hateable husband, Nakli as the nurse cum chef cum bodyguard cum prison guard who makes us feel about him as many different things as he has job titles and obviously O’Hare, who dazzles in the final third and shares an immense scene with Bennett, Swallow is an acting masterclass, and it is to Mirabella-Davis’ credit that he seems to capture them all seemingly so easily while always also doing so within fascinating framing.

Shot so beautifully you could eat your dinner off it, Swallow looks gorgeous and the Blu-ray encode captures it all perfectly. The score from Nathan Halpern (The Rider) is also done justice by the disc’s encoding. A crisp and full surround mix with well-judged levels in the centre and LFE channels giving the music and sound effects plenty of space to occupy and enveloper the listener and keeping the dialogue constantly crystal clear too.

The disc also features a nice array of extras. There is a commentary with the director as well as the film’s producers Mollye Asher and Mynette Louie and a 54-minute director interview too. This is quite fascinating and flashes by despite its lengthy running time. Mirabella-Davis is interesting and articulate and goes into great detail discussing how he became a filmmaker and how his grandmother was the inspiration for the film. There are also plenty of nuggets of trivia dropped by him throughout such as the eating disorder material being so well presented because he went out of his way to ensure the world’s leading expert on pica was a consultant on the film. His insight into all aspects of the pre-production, filming and post-production is also nice, but honestly my favourite part was discovering that he went to school with Jordan Peele, who actually showed him The Shining and Akira for the first time.

Another three interviews are present, the first with producer Mollye Asher, who over the course of eight minutes explains how she got involved in the film and what about Carlo and the script made her want to produce it. Second, is the film’s editor, Joe Murphy (We Summon the Darkness), who in sixteen minutes discusses meeting Carlo and how and why the two decided to work together. Pretty standard fare.

The final interview with composer Nathan Halpern is very good. A seventeen minutes sit down that explores his past and how his twin interests in music and films led to him wanting to be a film music composer, Halpern is revealed to have been a member of lots of post-punk bands and even stayed up all one night creating his own score to Rosemary’s Baby. He also talks at length about using heightened and genre sounding cues to create and enhance dread and tension and I really really liked this one.

If you’ve read my Blu-ray reviews before you’ll know how much I enjoy an Alexandra Heller-Nicholas visual essay. This latest extra from the Aussie film expert and creator of excellent extras that are insightful and interesting is a half-hour piece that uses Woolf’s A Room of Her Own as a jumping-off point for a deep dive into feminist transformation in Swallow, as well as the film’s exquisite use of space and place.

Also present is Carlo Mirabella Davis’ “short” film ( it’s 27-minutes long) Knife Point. A dread-inducing slow burn about a knife salesman given a lift by evangelical Christian’s, it is also a nice glimpse at a developing style that comes to fruition in Swallow. All-round, it’s a serviceable extras package, the only voices missing are the actors. To not have any input from Haley Bennett at all feels like a big miss and an even bigger shame.

Film

Disc

Swallow is available on Blu-ray from Second Sight Films now.

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