Housewives seeking independence has long been a hallmark in entertainment. There’s The Stepford Wives, Revolutionary Road, and even the recent show Good Girls. But the new film, Swallow, now in theaters and available on VOD, is in a class all its own. Swallow follows Hunter (Haley Bennett), who acts as the ultimate June Cleaver clone. She vacuums in high heels and painstakingly prepares gourmet dinners for her husband. She's the perfect housewife. That is, until she picks up a marble, sticks it in her mouth, and swallows it.
Hunter is living a life that she thought she wanted. She’s married to a wealthy man and lives in a beautiful glass house in New York’s Hudson Valley. Like most seemingly perfect households, there are cracks in the facade. When Hunter finds out that she's pregnant, she develops Pica, a psychological eating disorder in which the sufferer is driven to consume inedible objects. She eats tacks, pushpins, safety pins, and other sharp metal objects — all of which are potentially fatal to both her and the baby — in excruciatingly queasy detail. While Hunter’s struggle with Pica gives Swallow all the trappings of a psychological thriller, the film’s underlying meaning is one of female liberation.
"[She's] a woman that rebels against the status quo," Bennett tells Bustle. Hunter’s consumption of inedible objects is very much a result of her Pica diagnosis, but throughout the film she begins to relish in doing something so taboo — with each item becoming a little larger, sharper, or more dangerous. "She was trying to fit into this mold of being the perfect wife, the perfect daughter-in-law, everything that everyone else wanted her to be."
As she grapples with the disorder, Hunter starts reexamining the world around her. She realizes the things that she thought made her happy — the perfect house, the perfect husband, the soon-to-be perfect child — aren’t what she actually wants. "[Her Pica] is an act of rebellion to gain her independence. [To] break free from the situation and from the confinement of patriarchy," Bennett says of Hunter’s choice to embrace the disorder. When her in-laws send Hunter to therapy to work through her compulsion, she resists the help. For Hunter, swallowing things like earrings and batteries becomes her form of independence — and she’s not ready to let go of it.
Swallow is a deeply personal film to both Bennett and its writer-director, Carlo Mirabella-Davis. Mirabella-Davis’ inspiration for the movie came from his grandmother, who was an obsessive handwasher in the 1950s. She would go through four soap bars a day and 12 bottles of rubbing alcohol per week, which led to her being institutionalized. While their compulsions differ, Hunter’s story is very much his grandmother’s.
Bennett’s connection to the film was more unexpected. Just one day before Swallow began filming, Bennett discovered she was pregnant with her first child. Shooting a film about a pregnant woman who puts her life — as well as her child’s — on the line for her independence made a real impact on the actor. "This film represents me finding my voice and it came at the same time as I was becoming a mother," she says of her work on the film. "It was a really, really empowering time in my life and I've been able to keep that with me."
Though Hunter’s Pica is, at times, very hard to watch, the story is universal: it’s a woman who wants to be free, no matter the cost.