Swallow (2019)

In a thematic sense, it’s near impossible to talk about the eerie, darkly humorous thriller Swallow without comparing it to Todd Hanes’s Safe. In both films, wealthy housewives suffer enigmatic health crises that can’t be controlled or even fully defined by their frustrated doctors & families – evoking a kind of existential horror take on the Douglas Sirk melodrama. They also both reach a third act turning point where their respective protagonists break free from their confined, controlled homelives to seek out a community of their own choosing – disrupting the structure of a typical thriller in remarkably similar ways. As similar as its content may be to Haynes’s prior achievement, however, Swallow has no trouble distinguishing itself as a unique work in tone or purpose. Safe is a pure exercise in mood & atmosphere, avoiding any direct answers as to what physical or cosmic affliction is tormenting its unraveling housewife protagonist beyond a vague association with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. By contrast, Swallow is much more willing to function as a straightforward genre film, discussing its themes & central conflict in clear, unflinching terms so that it can fully deal with the sinister consequences onscreen. Its wicked humor, squirmy body horror, and open discussions of financial & gendered power dynamics make for an equally disturbing but much more easily digestible picture – pun heavily intended.

The tormented housewife in question here suffers from a psychological disorder known as pica – which prompts her to compulsively swallow inedible objects of increasing danger & difficulty. Outright rejecting any need for subtlety or restraint (two vastly overrated impulses in modern filmmaking at large), Swallow openly acknowledges that this compulsion is its protagonist’s way of exercising control over her body in a closely monitored, oppressively boring life as a domestic servant for her own wealthy husband. Denied privacy, autonomy, and pleasure in all other aspects of her life, she finds a new, exciting fixation in swallowing increasingly dangerous, seemingly random household objects: marbles, thumb tacks, AA batteries, etc. On the surface, she seems to have won the lottery of life – living in the right house, impregnated by the right husband, curating the perfect nuclear home. The way she’s steamrolled & ignored in daily conversation makes her out to be more of home appliance than a living, breathing person, though, so she invents ways to exert control over her life & stir up internal adventures by swallowing forbidden objects. The financial & patriarchal authority figures in her family & medical community might not fully understand why she puts her life (and by extension her fetus’s life) at risk for such an unproductive thrill, but the audience totally gets it – and the horror comes not only from being unable to stop her, but also from being tempted to cheer her on.

There’s plenty of tonal & stylistic choices that distinguish Swallow as a uniquely satisfying work – especially regarding how it plays with genre. The contrast of the cold, crisp, color-coordinated spaces our thumbtack-swallowing heroine occupies emphasizes her need to break free from her domestic prison in nearly every frame. There’s also a deliciously wicked contrast between the humor & horror of her affliction; you both secretly want to see her get away with sneaking the next sharp object down her throat and squirm in anguish as it scrapes against her teeth or is surgically removed. The real distinguishing factor here, though, is Haley Bennett’s performance in the central role. Both Swallow and Safe essentially function as one-woman shows. Bennett had a daunting task in distinguishing her own performance in that paradigm from the living legend who is Julianne Moore, something she seemingly accomplishes with ease. Appearing like a scared child in June Cleaver housewife drag, Bennett conveys a horrific lack of confidence & self-determination in every gesture. Her fragility & despondence under the control of her wealthy, emotionally abusive family make you want to celebrate her newfound, deeply personal path to fulfillment, even though it very well might kill her. As she snacks on fistfuls of garden soil while watching trash TV instead of obeying her family’s orders all I could think was “Good for her!,” which is about as far from the sentiment of Safe as possible. It’s a less opaque, less thematically subtle work than Haynes’s film, which I honestly believe makes for an improvement on the already satisfying formula. It could not have gotten there without the strength of Haley Bennett’s performance though; the whole enterprise rests on her shoulders and she carries it with an astounding ease.

-Brandon Ledet

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

I hate Westerns. I really, really do. When I was a kid in rural East Baton Rouge Parish (and especially when we went to visit even-more-rural friends and family in St Helena), they seemed to make up the bulk of television outside of primetime; moreover, family friends who were fortunate enough to own more than ten videocassettes (which was how I defined wealth then, and, perhaps, now) still had a collection that was largely made up of Western cinema. The filmic depiction of the mythological Wild West, with its overwhelming anxiety about bandits, borderline racist depictions of native people, the uniform whiteness of the protagonists (which led me, as a child, to be unable to tell characters apart), and overall bland cinematic eye really turned me off. I can barely even stand to watch the Western episodes of The Twilight Zone, my favorite show of all time; when one comes on during Syfy’s annual marathons, it’s the cue for me to go outside and get some fresh air.

There are exceptions, of course, to every rule. As a rule, I loathe musicals, but I can see the merits in, for instance, the Heathers musical, which I saw both in New York and in Austin, and I am more willing to accept characters breaking into song in animation, which is already acceptable removed from cinema vérité (Bob’s Burgers and The Simpsons most notably, but also more traditionally musical fare like The Little Mermaid). There are Westerns that I like, enjoy or otherwise feel something like fondness for; my grandfather loved Quigley Down Under and thus so do I, The Quick and the Dead is a fun movie, and Sergio Leone’s Westerns are cinematically engaging on a level that intrigues me. And, of course, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven.

When The Verge did their write-up on 2016’s Magnificent 7 last month, they heralded its arrival in their headline: “behold, the progressive Western.” I didn’t see that review before I saw the film, but it was also the first thing that struck me about this film after I largely ignored the promotional materials. Although the film follows the structure of the original film (and, by extension, Seven Samurai), gone are the questionable and dated trappings of the old school Western, replaced with an easily digestible parable about capitalism and race dressed up in a gunslinger’s shoot ‘em up. And it’s pretty great!

Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) is a corrupt industrialist who has his sights set on Rose Creek, a mining town in northern California. He and his cohort of morally bankrupt private detectives, thinly veiled versions of the Pinkertons who broke up strikes in the real West, roll into town and burn the facade of the church, telling the townsfolk that he will return in less than a month to purchase the last of their hard-earned land for less than half of its worth, and they can either fall in line or die. Shortly thereafter, widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and her friend enlist the help of warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) when he passes through town in pursuit of a fugitive. Although he is at first reluctant, Chisolm relents when he hears that the Bart Bogue is behind this transgression, he agrees to help Rose Creek defend itself.

In a plotline that has been homaged from The Avengers to Star Wars (so much so that most viewers likely think it’s older than locomotion), Chisolm recruits six more men to join him: rapscallion sharpshooter and gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), Mexican outlaw gunslinger Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Ruffo), legendary New Orleans rifleman “Goodnight” Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding associate Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Comanche wanderer Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio). The seven men come together (with Emma acting as a kind of alternate teammate in various situations) to try and teach the settlers of Rose Creek to defend themselves against Bogue’s imminent invasion.

I really enjoyed this film. Above and beyond the general thrill of a legitimately fun Western with clearly evil and less-clearly-good characters, I loved the subtext. Gone is the marauding bandito who terrorized the peasant village of the original, replaced by the face of true evil in every generation: avaricious capitalist men driven by their lust for and worship of material goods (and the power that they bring) with no regard for the cost of human life and dignity. Instead of helping to protect and serve the populace of Rose Creek from outside influence, the sheriff of the town has been bought and paid for by Bogue; the innocents who have entrusted him with their lives are mowed down by him for immoral reasons, just as we so often see the loss of life (largely of people of color) at the hands of modern police forces. The deputies of the town are amoral thugs with no sense of right or wrong, hired mercenaries with so much blood on their hands that they’ll never be clean; not only are they evocative of the Pinkertons but also of the PMCs used in Iraq and elsewhere, before and during the war on terror.

Standing in their way are a black man (given that the film is set in 1879 and the fact that Chisolm refers to living in Arkansas, he is likely to be a former slave), a Native American, an Asian man, and a Mexican sharpshooter (in one notable exchange, Vasquez remarks that there is no such thing as a “Texican,” illuminating the lie in the name given to him by others who sought only to steal the land and livelihood of himself and his people). Beyond these POC are other marginalized people, including a soldier with PTSD and an elderly man who has been declared useless by society. And a woman!

In a more traditional Western, Bogue would represent progress, the man bringing civilization to the “savage” western edge of the country, but here he is shown for who he really is, a corrupt monster who uses bullying and violence to make his mark on the world, and, ultimately, he is undone by a diverse coalition of men (and a woman!) who forsake old grudges (as seen in the interactions between Red Harvest and Jack Horne as well as Vasquez and Faraday) in order to prevent an evil reaping of innocent people. And, hey, it’s a surprisingly progressive film that you can probably get even your racist grandpa to watch. Check it out!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond