There are some fancy dishes prepared at the start of “Swallow,” but director Carlo Mirabella-Davis makes sure you see the inelegant way they were prepared. While a dinner of lamb and Chardonnay looks beautiful once it reaches the dinner table, it begins with the lamb being dragged from a cozy corner of a barn and slaughtered, while the presentation of a subsequent meal comprised of chicken and stuffed artichoke eschews showing the killing of the bird, but puts extra emphasis on the queasy sound of mustard being squeezed to compliment it on the plate. No one else to be conscious of these things within the well to do Conrad family, except its newest member Hunter (Haley Bennett), having suffered quite a bit already to make herself acceptable enough to marry the prodigal son Richie (Austin Stowell).
Bearing a blonde bob and a dulcet voice, Hunter knows she’s filling the role of a trophy wife in Mirabella-Davis’ provocative feature debut, but it’s clear the family didn’t do their due diligence on her, leading Richie’s mother (Elizabeth Marvel), to ask “What did you do for money before meeting my son?” As it turns out, she was interested in a career in illustrating and worked a day job selling toiletries, but to tell anybody about this is to suggest that a diamond actually starts out as coal, which probably wouldn’t fly among those she’s currently closest to, and after discovering she’s pregnant, concern sets in that she’s consigned herself to sacrificing far more than she already has.
Bennett, who it could be argued has been thrust into a similar fate professionally as being far more interesting than the roles she’s been asked to play, runs with the part, boasting killer instincts befitting of her character’s name. With a damning eye-roll and an ability to make unpleasant subjects sound mundane, she is utterly convincing when “Swallow” asks its audience to do just that as Hunter takes the admonition of a self-help book her mother-in-law gives her to heart and starts to do the unexpected, involving her gastrointestinal tract. Threatening the health of the baby and by extension the interest any of the Conrads have in her, it is an unlikely but effective salve for her own well-being.
Mirabella-Davis has no trouble crafting the resplendent world that the Conrads occupy, but more impressively, he’s able to capture the rot that lies just underneath that Hunter sees in the very same frame, in part because of the strength of Bennett’s performance and a complete confidence in the film’s tone, having quite a bit of naughty fun with the central conceit while taking Hunter’s plight as seriously as any great tragedy. A late scene in the film involving a perfectly cast Denis O’Hare as a man from Hunter’s past manages to make one sick to one’s stomach with the impact he’s had on her life, even in absentia, and busts the gut with the awkwardness of the situation, and a haunting final image lets one wonder how many other stories there are out there like Hunter’s, though there’s still a sense of satisfaction when at least hers has been related so strikingly.
“Swallow” will screen at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 29th at 8:30 pm and May 1st at 6:30 pm at the Village East Cinemas and May 4th at 6 pm at the Regal Cinemas Battery Park.