A tense, harrowing and deeply character-driven study that plays out like a nightmare.
Synopsis: Follows two best friends on their final night together, with a nightmare of drugs, bugs, and horrific intimacy.
Friends Benjamin (Cooper Koch) and Dom (Jose Colon) are enjoying one last night together before Benjamin leaves to start his porn career in Los Angeles. In an attempt to secure some last-minute funding Dom agrees to a one-off drug deal that he hopes will set Benjamin on the right course in his new life. However, when the terms of the deal are revealed it soon transpires that the pair are at far more risk than they ever imagined.
Despite the tension that Swallowed maintains throughout, whether that comes from the ticking clock of the drug cargo or the behaviour of characters, it still retains a deeply emotional thread, never allowing you to separate the characters from their situation. The narrative calls for graphic content at times, but this doesn’t feel gratuitous, even without shying away from intimate details. What is shown is arguably not as powerful as the descriptions given in dialogue, delivering on details and effects that would be almost impossible to show, yet add so much to the horror.
This is an openly queer story, with the central relationship evolving throughout the film in a way that feels organic and earned. Both Koch and Colon have an immense charm that carries those interactions smoothly, anchoring their care for one another. An encounter in a public bathroom in which a slur is levelled at them prompts one of the film’s most open reckonings with their experiences. Benjamin’s idealised view of a totally accepting LA in which he is free from prejudice is ruptured by Dom’s reply that “guys like that live everywhere”. That Benjamin’s escape may not be the escape he is seeking is understandably placed under the microscope by his ordeal and it is through the course of the film that his ability to face up to ugly realities is repeatedly challenged.
With the leads producing two excellent performances it would be easy for the supporting cast to be overshadowed. However, Jena Malone is pitch perfect as Alice with her ability to switch between hyper-focused and intense while also allowing slips of humanity. Mark Patton bursts into the film as Rich, leaving a mark almost instantly. The extremes of his performance are genuinely difficult to watch at times, with rage seemingly constantly at risk of boiling over. The ebb and flow of intensity never gives way entirely, leaving the whole film with a deep sense of unease that holds the viewer in its grip.
Outside of this, that connection to the characters continues to pay off and it is to the film’s credit that it is able to keep the unpleasantness as well as providing distinctly beautiful, affecting moments. As a result, the pacing is near-perfect, never allowing a moment to relax while still providing space for the characters and scenario to take on wider meaning and explore those themes. Writer-director Carter Smith has precise control at all times and that results in the narrative becoming all the more impactful.
Swallowed is a powerful and uneasy film with an incredible energy that does not let up throughout the run time.
4 out of 5 stars
Swallowed played as part of the North Bend Film Fest 2022.