Swallow


(2019) Psychological Horror (IFC MidnightHaley Bennett, Austin Stowell, Denis O’Hare, Elizabeth Marvel, David Rasche, Luna Lauren Velez, Zabryna Guevara, Laith Nakli, Babak Tafti, Nicole Kang, Olivia Perez, Kristi Kirk, Alyssa Bresnahan, Laura Dias, Elise Santora, Myra Lucretia Taylor, Nicholas M. Garofalo, Matthew Waiters, McGregory Frederique, Jackie Almonte, Mingjie Li, Sophie Max. Directed by Carlo Mirabella-Davis

 

A great movie tells a great or compelling story. We are taken from point A to point B and all the way to the end, watching the story unfold. That isn’t always the case, however. Sometimes, what makes a movie great are the things that are left unsaid.

Hunter (Bennett) would seem on the surface to have it made. She is married to a wealthy husband (Stowell), a rising star in his father’s (Rasche) firm. She lives in a gorgeous house her in-laws bought for the couple. To top it all off, she is newly pregnant. What’s not to like?

Plenty, as it turns out. As the movie progresses, we see that the in-laws, supportive and caring on the surface, pay only lip service to that persona. What they really are is condescending and controlling, particularly her mother-in-law (Marvel). Hunter has come to realize that she’s in a prison cell. A comfortable, beautiful prison cell but a prison cell nonetheless.

Her means of regaining control is by ingesting objects that aren’t edible, starting with marbles and dirt, ramping up to more dangerous items like batteries, pushpins and thumbtacks. Is she trying to off herself and/or the baby? Or is there something deeper at play here?

This squirm-inducing psychological body horror film is based on a real condition called pica. Mirabella-Davis takes the tactic of not answering all the questions; we are never given a definitive answer as to why Hunter is subjecting herself to this dangerous habit. Is it a means of courting danger and getting an adrenaline rush? Is it compensation for her past which is revealed during a conversation with her therapist (Dias). That past is dealt with eventually in a coda in which she establishes that she has a voice and is no longer content to be the submissive, mousy little housewife. The tone of the denouement is at odds with the rest of the movie which renders it much more effective.

Bennett is a revelation, delivering a mind-blowing performance that is terrifically layered, showing a surface persona that hides deep-seated anxieties and resentment. Despite Hunter’s often maddening submissive behavior, Bennett makes the character someone we can root for particularly in the last third of the movie.

The production design is also quite amazing; despite the modern conveniences (Hunter constantly plays video games on her smartphone), there is very much a 50’s/early 60’s vibe here, from Hunter’s perky blonde bob, her A-line skirt wardrobe and the 64 World’s Fair furnishings. Cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi impresses with shots bathed in lush primary colors. It’s visually a very striking film.

This isn’t for everyone. The scenes of her ingesting some of the items are cringe-inducing to say the least and the scenes of her retrieving the bloody objects from the toilet may send some straight for the exit. Still, this is a mesmerizing film that cinema buffs are going to appreciate and horror fans might just find compelling.

REASONS TO SEE: Bennett gives a bravura performance. Disturbing on in a good way on so many levels.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes gets caught up in its own bizarre tone.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, plenty of sexuality and some truly disturbing behavior.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Mirabella-Davis’ first solo feature film; the movie was inspired by his grandmother’s institutionalization and eventual lobotomizing. During the film’s Tribeca screening, an audience member actually fainted during the thumbtack ingestion scene.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Teeth
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Los Ultimos Frikis

The Iceman


Michael Shannon has a unique way of firing his agents.

Michael Shannon has a unique way of firing his agents.

(2012) True Crime Drama (Millennium) Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, Ray Liotta, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi James Franco, Stephen Dorff, Danny Abeckaser, John Ventimiglia, Ryan O’Nan, McKaley Miller, Megan Sherrill, Hector Hank, Zoran Radanovich, Shira Vilensky, Kelly Lind, Erin Cumings, Ashlynn Ross, Weronika Rosati, Christa Campbell. Directed by Ariel Vromen

It’s always the quiet ones, the ones who lose it and go on a killing spree. Contract killers are another case altogether. These are men with ice in their veins, able to kill without remorse or emotion. It’s a job for them, no less upsetting than someone who sells cars for a living.

Richie Kuklinski (Shannon) is a family man, married to the beautiful but volatile Deborah (Ryder). He works dubbing films – cartoons he tells his wife but porn films in reality. The mobster who runs the porn operation Richie is working for – Roy DeMeo (Liotta) – is impressed by Richie’s coolness under fire, so he decides to take Richie on as a contract killer. Roy and his buddy Josh Rosenthal (Schwimmer) take Richie out and order him to kill some random homeless guy which he does.

This is the start for a whole new career for Richie as he ices guys on Roy’s say-so. When a coke deal is botched by Josh who kills the dealers involved, Roy is forced to lay low for awhile, leaving Richie unemployed. As money gets tighter and Richie’s temper gets more volatile, Richie hooks up with Mr. Freezy (Evans), a freelance contract killer who works out of an ice cream truck. He teaches Richie the proper use of cyanide and the trick of freezing bodies and then thawing them before dumping them, throwing police off on the correct time of death. It is for the latter practice that Richie is given the nickname “The Iceman.”

When DeMeo finds out about Richie’s new freelancing scheme, he goes ballistic which doesn’t bode well for Richie’s future state of health. When Roy brings in Leonard Marks (Davi) from one of the big crime families in New York, it looks like Richie’s days are numbered but Roy and Marks have forgotten one prime directive – never ever piss off a contract killer.

This is pretty standard stuff for the true mob killer movie. Yes, Richie Kuklinski was a real person who claims to have killed between 100-250 people during his heyday from 1948 to 1986. He was also a family man who’s arrest stunned his neighborhood.

While the story remains pretty typical, the acting here is superb. Shannon, an Oscar nominee, shows that there are many more of those on the way (and likely a statuette somewhere down the line) with a powerful performance here which is doubly commendable because he doesn’t have a lot to work with. The real Richie was by all accounts a strong, silent type who wasn’t much of a communicator. He was more or less a psychopath who was paid for crimes he probably would have committed eventually in any case. Shannon gives Richie at least some personality, with cold eyes that erupt into volcanic fury when pushed. It’s a marvelous juxtaposition that gives the character depth that the real Richie probably didn’t have.

Ryder, who has been an infrequent screen presence of late, is absolutely amazing as the willfully oblivious Deborah. She knows that her husband is hiding something horrible, but chooses to ignore it. There’s nothing wrong if she doesn’t know there’s anything wrong, so she chooses to ignore it until it’s right in her face.

Schwimmer is the anti-Ross here, stocky with a hippie ponytail, a 70s porn star moustache and a mean streak, although there is a bit of Ross-like nebbishness as he begins to realize he is in far over his head. Liotta gets a standard Ray Liotta crime figure and does with it what he usually does, which also adds to the overall quality of the picture.

In fact the performances are what makes the movie. This is strongly acted throughout, from the barely-recognizable Evans to Franco in a brief cameo. It’s Shannon however who carries the movie and he does so with ease. He may well be this generation’s De Niro – not a traditional leading man sort but who elevates every movie he’s in. While Vromen is no Scorsese and this no Goodfellas it nonetheless doesn’t disgrace the genre created by that film. In fact, it’s a solid follower in it’s footsteps.

REASONS TO GO: A strong performance by Michael Shannon.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really add much to the true life mob movie genre.

FAMILY VALUES:  A good deal of violence and a bit of gore, lots and lots of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Franco was originally cast as Kuklinski but had to take the smaller role as Marty Freeman instead; Maggie Gyllenhaal was likewise cast as Deborah Pellicotti but had to drop out due to her pregnancy and Winona Ryder got the part.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100; solid good reviews here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kill the Irishman

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The History of Future Folk