It comes as no surprise that Hunter develops pica. The compulsion mirrors her entrapment: like the lifestyle being forced down her throat, the first object, a pretty red marble, goes down smooth….”
By Zoe Kurland.
What is it with thrillers and mid-century modern homes? There has long been a love affair between the two; from Body Double to Fracture, North by Northwest to Twilight, there’s something about a modernist home, especially a cloistered one, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that signals trouble ahead. For Swallow, the first scripted feature from writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis, “nowhere” is Poughkeepsie, New York, a lush and foggy upstate fantasy where we will proceed to watch our protagonist, Hunter (a fairy-like Haley Bennett), develop pica, a disorder which compels her to eat inedible objects. In the film’s opening scenes, the newly married Hunter tends to a glass and steel home, dragging leaves out of the still blue water of a swimming pool. Behind her, naked trees splinter up against a foggy white sky. All quiet on the Eastern front.
Suddenly, the scene jumps to a group of three lambs, backed into the corner of a barn as an unseen figure looms. In another smash cut, we’re back upstate, watching Hunter unpack boxes from her recent move, meticulously placing hard objects (including the red marble she will later swallow) upon a glass table. We alternate between the two scenes: the domestic cool of Hunter arranging her perfect home, and a pair of unidentified hands slaughtering the lamb, until said lamb is tossed into a pan and served at a dinner party thrown by Hunter’s wealthy in-laws. What Swallow wants us to understand from the outset is that posterity is only made possible by flesh sacrifice. Something has to give, or perhaps even die, for the people around the table to eat so well.
At the party, Hunter’s father in law announces that he’s promoted his son, the aptly named Richie, to a higher position within “their small little company,” a vague Manhattan corporation we never learn the nature of. The ambiguity of the work feels deliberate. This could be any business, any job, any era, evocative of the images of husbands and fathers from 1950s and 60s advertisements, leaving to and returning from “the firm,” “the company,” “the agency,” etc. Richie, with practiced gravitas, dutifully thanks Hunter for being “giving and selfless,” virtues right at home in the 19th century’s Cult of Domesticity. Less practiced is Ritchie’s brusque footnote: “oh, uh, my folks bought us a house, thanksverymuchforthehouse.” With this line, Mirabella-Davis swiftly pokes a hole in the myth of the American Dream; in the world Hunter has just married into, no one works for what they have, they simply step into it.
Production designer Erin Magill names Safe (1995) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968) as major influences for her approach, not directly for design so much as “mood.” The aforementioned films are both inverted gothic tales: the living space is clean, modern perfection while the woman’s body becomes the site of the horror. Swallow follows this pattern; Mirabella-Davis writes that the film was inspired by the life of his grandmother, Edith Mirabella, a “1940s homemaker trapped in an unhappy marriage who developed OCD rituals of control… as a way to create order in a life she felt increasingly powerless in.” In pursuit of this aim, Mirabella-Davis can be a bit on the nose: Hunter’s pica is motivated by palpable confinement. She walks around her home in the garb of a 1950s housewife: all trim waists and big skirts in primary colors, topped off with a carefully curated blonde bob. The retro world is so complete that the iPhone game Hunter plays in moments of extreme ennui feels, paradoxically, like the anachronism.
“I feel so lucky,” says Hunter, sitting before the perfectly plated dinner she has prepared.
Richie has been texting and does not hear her. “I feel so lucky,” she repeats. The statement hangs limp in the air, setting up an uneasy power dynamic. Richie simply smiles, as though he’s never thought about luck in his life, or, more likely, he thinks that Hunter, a woman from a working-class background, should feel lucky. His comfort hinges on her feelings of gratitude and altruism, which fuel her drive as a homemaker.
It turns out that homemaking is a full-body job. When Hunter finds out she’s pregnant, her father in law immediately steps back and points to her abdomen. “The future CEO of our company,” he booms. This positions Hunter as little more than a vessel, a steward of the family legacy. Richie’s mother proudly states that she was in labor for 30 hours with Richie, an obvious badge of honor, as if he chose to stay in. “He didn’t want to come out, he had it made in there,” says Richie’s father with a laugh, as though the womb were some fabulous little bachelor pad. As if actualizing this idea, Hunter decorates her future child’s nursery by putting an eerie red film over one of the windows, giving the space the feel of an immaculately decorated womb. It seems no coincidence that the minute the room begins to resemble a body, Hunter’s mother appears, uninvited. She dismisses Hunter’s startled reaction with a tinge of disgust, as if it were her house (which, technically, it is).
The house and Hunter are constantly subject to casual acts of trespassing; to guide her through the pregnancy, Hunter is gifted a book hilariously titled A Talent for Joy, which her mother-in-law touts as the cure for post-partum depression. With this oxymoronic title, Mirabella-Davis underlines the themes of faux-bootstrapping that drive the film forward. “Talent” implies natural, inborn ability, and yet, one presumably buys this book to learn how to be talented. This is the insidious idea of rugged individualism at work: more time and sacrifice on Hunter’s part to “better herself,” which, in this case, means making her womb as comfortable as possible.
Frankly, it comes as no surprise that Hunter develops pica. The compulsion mirrors her entrapment: like the lifestyle being forced down her throat, the first object, a pretty red marble, goes down smooth, but the next, a red thumbtack, results in a trail of blood running down the porcelain toilet bowl, clear evidence that the sharp edge has torn through her body. There is only so much of her cold, immaculate life she can choke down before it ruins her. She cleans up the blood shamefully, perhaps internally berating herself for not yet being talented enough at “joy.”
Mirabella-Davis communicates this central metaphor well, if not too overtly at times. When the film begins, the angles are wider, the shots less intimate. As Hunter’s world closes in, so does the camera (helmed by Katelin Arizmendi), which crouches in tight, focusing on her expressions of forced delight and fear, of ecstasy and shame. This ever-narrowing focus, which immerses us within Hunter’s constricted world, underscores the film’s central conceit: there is a specific kind of shame that comes with the pain of being an imperfect woman, or an imperfect mother. A woman is first and foremost responsible for making herself like a house, available and habitable for her husband and her children. As such, Hunter’s most subversive act is to make her body uninhabitable. When an ultrasound, meant to pick up the heartbeat of her future child, instead finds a constellation of inedible objects, we see the crux of the film: Hunter has become a beautiful and cluttered house, literally filled with the hollow possessions we watched her unpack an hour earlier. As the mid-century modern home represents a stale American Dream, Hunter’s body represents the means through which a normative American legacy, fueled by nepotism and the illusion of self-help, can thrive.
I practically cheered when Hunter – spoiler alert – alone at last in a dingy motel room, eats some dirt. This seems, at the very least food-adjacent, or, rather, life-adjacent. From simple, soft dirt, something untold can grow.
Zoe Kurland is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She holds a BA in English from Columbia University. Her writing appears in Bright Lights Film Journal, COUNTERCLOCK Journal, The Nonconformist, and more.