In recent years, there’s been a modest revival of the lone-woman-going-crazy sub-genre of art/horror that first boomed in the 1960s, around the time of Repulsion. Writer-director Carlo Mirabella-Davis and star Haley Bennett – who has been building steadily since The Haunting of Molly Hartley and gets a potential breakout role here – craft a slow-burning, unsettling but humane entry in the cycle, which is acute psychologically and surprisingly holds still just this side of melodrama.
Given the context of a FrightFest screening, audiences might expect this to go a different way – but the home stretch actually features a couple of scenes which go so far against expectations – and, in one case, a deeply-embedded American film convention – that there’s a dizzying sense of unforced reality. Hunter (Bennett), ‘rescued’ from a life of aimless retail work and unfulfilled artistic impulses by marriage into a wealthy family, is left at a loose end in the spectacular but isolated and isolating home that’s a moderne take on the Ibsen doll house. Austin Stowell, as model-look husband Richie Conrad, and Elizabeth Marvel and David Rasche, as her infuriatingly calm in-laws, are perfectly ennervating, pausing with slight irritation whenever Hunter requires attention – whether it be telling an anecdote at dinner or, after she falls pregnant, succumbing to a peculiar, yet credible set of compulsive behaviours. When her mother-in-law gifts her a smug-sounding self-help book, Hunter takes the advice to do something unexpected literally and swallows a red marble … which passes through her digestive tract relatively painlessly. She then goes on, after some hesitation, to swallow a thumb-tack and a series of small objects she places on a shining trophy tray … until a scan of her foetus also shows up numerous foreign items in her stomach.
The Conrad family – seething as if they’d found a chip in an expensive piece of tableware – take a high-handed approach to dealing with the issue, with Dad suggesting they go straight to drugs, Mom insisting on a burly round-the-clock ‘nurse’, and Richie bullying a shrink so that Hunter’s confidences – which extend to an unexpected ‘origin story’ she insists is no big deal but so plainly – are passed on to him. Full disclosure – as a child, I ate a marble once (for years, I presumed it was still inside me) and had a craze for doing something quite like one of Hunter’s tics (I would tear strips of paper and chew it like gum) … so I get what’s unique about this particular quirk, which is embarrassing, probably harmful but also an odd sort of achievement.
In her glass cage, Hunter is subjected to an incremental series of betrayals by people she impulsively or of necessity trusts – most of all, her clueless and controlling husband, but also a random party guest who seems to reach out to her in her loneliness by asking for a hug (only it’s a well-practiced schtick he uses on other women) and even her psychiatrist. Swallow gets the horror of embarrassment well – the freezing moment as Hunter realises a whole chic party know about her secret shame, her rigid posture as she has to subject to a pat-down from her nurse (Laith Nakli) before going to the bathroom (where she has a secret stash of swallowables), the sense of being on display and at risk of being sent back to the showroom. The first two-thirds of the film are confined to the home, but – with an unexpected character making a moral decision – the last act gets out on the road, with Hunter exploring her past – including a visit to a once-shady character (Denis O’Hare) who now seems to have an ideal, lively home life – and weighing up her options for the future.