In the psychological thriller ‘Swallow,’ Haley Bennett finds her breakout role

By Ann Hornaday
The Washington Post

Beginning with her hilarious, gloriously self-assured debut in the criminally under-seen rom-com “Music and Lyrics,” Haley Bennett has enjoyed a career that, while steady, has been devoid of the breakout role she’s long deserved.

Until now.

In “Swallow,” Bennett finally comes into her own as the kind of leading lady who is more than just a pretty face, and can occupy the screen and hold it, with commanding authority. In a supremely canny move, Bennett produced this unnerving, creepily atmospheric thriller, in which she plays a wealthy, somewhat abstracted housewife making a perverse bid for self-determination. Bennett claims her own form of autonomy with the movie itself, which could be read as an actress’ decision to stop hoping for good scripts to arrive over the transom and make her own luck.

Bennett plays Hunter, a meek, carefully coifed newlywed who has just moved into a posh Hudson Valley aerie with her husband, Richie (Austin Stowell). Drifting and dreaming in mid-century luxury, Hunter is a cypher: Her past as a designer is hinted at (she tries to draw at one point, to no avail), and it becomes clear that the privilege that surrounds her is a function of her in-laws’ largesse. For her part, she wears wealth uneasily, if gratefully, not least because her chief duty in the division of labour is … labour, i.e. getting pregnant as soon as possible.

Perhaps it’s because Hunter feels lost or undervalued, or perhaps it’s because she’s just bored, but she discovers a way to create feelings of self-worth and privacy by engaging in a secret act that becomes more perilous as she pushes her body beyond its healthy limits. In the tradition of Todd Haynes’s “Safe,” with a dash of horror films like “The Stepford Wives” and “The Perfection” thrown in for chilly measure, “Swallow” is the hushed, methodical chronicle of a woman’s descent into ever more self-harming extremes, a journey that, in this case, has its roots in patriarchy at its most controlling and violent.

Written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, who makes an assured fiction feature debut here, “Swallow” isn’t entirely convincing when it comes to the most troubling psychological roots of Hunter’s affliction. But the filmmaker’s tonal control, and Bennett’s confident grasp of the material, make for a compelling portrait of emerging consciousness and, ultimately, liberation. (Her finest scene comes late in the film, opposite the always terrific Denis O’Hare.)

Equal parts quiet and disquieting, Bennett’s performance in “Swallow” should put Hollywood on notice that she’s a force to be reckoned with, on her own unapologetic terms.

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Three stars. Rated R. Contains coarse language, some sexuality and disturbing behaviour. 94 minutes.

Rating Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.

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