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Bennett is a presence to be reckoned with in "Swallow"

Kupferberg shows how she used to splice films.
Audrey Kupferberg shows how she used to splice movie films.

The internet Movie Database describes actress Haley Bennett as “a natural talent with a striking presence.” I would have paid little attention to that description till quite recently when by chance I screened two of her films one day after the other.

Her acting ability isn’t what strikes me most. Instead, it is her incredibly striking presence. When she’s on screen, other actors seem like fluid background pieces, nothing more.

Anyone doubting that description should see Swallow, a weird, eerie psychological thriller from 2019. The story focuses on Hunter, the Haley Bennett character, who is a stay-at-home wife in a modern mansion. Her husband and in-laws are rich, and they are stiff, cold people. I haven’t figured out how she ever came to be part of this family, but that’s another issue.

The focus is on Hunter as she handles her recent pregnancy. In a studied manner, she begins to swallow objects that are not considered people food. She ingests a marble. She swallows a sharp metal tack, then a battery. She later ingests a small metal tool. Apparently, this is a rare but real condition; it’s called Pica.

When the family catches on to Hunter’s obsession, they tighten their control to save the baby from harm. It’s a film about people controlling other people. It’s also a film about a single character doing something shocking. You won’t run scared and screaming from the room as Hunter indulges, but you might be unnerved. I was.

Swallow was written and directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis, who has won awards for his work on this title and an earlier film, Knife Point, a short from 2009. This is Mirabella-Davis’s first feature length film. An upstate New Yorker, he is from East Meredith. Mirabella-Davis, a fellow graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, understands the thriller genre. He has a handle on pacing and the subtle art of dramatic build-up.

He knows how to cull from film history. I say that because various elements of Swallow, including the choice of setting, pay tribute to Alfred Hitchcock. The production designer, Erin Magill, stated in an interview that the look of the film is inspired by such movies as Safe and Rosemary’s Baby. The main portion of Swallow was shot at a real-life architect’s glass-walled mansion along the Hudson River in Highland NY.

The impact of Swallow on viewers would not be as powerful with most other actresses in the lead. Haley Bennett has such a compelling presence, such an odd way of looking at others but appearing not to see anyone. She may or may not be a fine actress, and I admit that I haven’t seen her in many screen roles. With the soon-to-be-released feature, Cyrano, in which she plays Roxanne, audiences not familiar with her work may have an opportunity to judge.

The evening after seeing Swallow, I took a look at a musical comedy from 2007 starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, Music and Lyrics. I was in the mood for a comedy, and I did not realize this film is Haley Bennett’s screen debut. She plays a kookie sexy mega-pop star who performs oddball song and dance numbers. Obviously, her role in this lightweight but highly enjoyable romantic comedy is a different kettle of fish from the role in Swallow. However, that inscrutable facial expression is there, even in this fluffy entertainment. This would seem to be her signature demeanor. I don’t know of any other actress who can draw the eyes of the viewer to her alone by expressing through the almost frozen, the unfathomable.

Audrey Kupferberg is a retired film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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