Not enough people know about The Ruins. When it was released in 2008, it feel amidst the Torture Porn wave that defined the early 2000s. And critics weren’t particular kind to the mix of eco- and body horror. Regardless it’s much better than its initial critical reception and marked an impressive debut feature for director Carter Smith. Now Smith is back with the indie thriller Swallowed that promises more body horror. Smaller in scale and perhaps more intimate, early critical reception for Swallowed has been largely positive.
It’s Benjamin’s last night in his small, dead end town before he leaves for Los Angeles to start a career in the porn industry. To help his friend get started, Dom plans a quick detour from the bar to pick up a package for what he thinks is a quick, easy drug run. It’s supposed to be easy money. But the package isn’t drugs – it’s a package of strange, cocooned bugs. And the dealer’s hired gun is pretty insistent that Dom and Benjamin swallow them to get across the border into Canada. Soon Dom and Benjamin become violently ill and the on-the-edge dealer isn’t very sympathetic.
Swallowed Balances Two Very Different Movies Into a Mostly Effective Thriller
An immediate problem that Swallowed faces is its own promotional material. Everything about the thriller promises the kind of grotesque body horror that defines David Cronenberg’s work. Writer and director Carter Smith (The Ruins) also initially veers off into that uncomfortable territory in his middle act. To be fair, Swallowed includes some imagery – and suggested images offscreen – that should make most viewers squirm in their seat. Just the thought of bug festering inside your body prompts some cringeworthy thoughts. These parts of the movie work quite well as a build-up. What doesn’t work is that Smith promptly ditches the body horror for the final act. It’s a build-up to something that abruptly shifts gears to something else.
Just the thought of bug festering inside your body prompts some cringeworthy thoughts.
Fortunately, Swallowed may change gears but it doesn’t go off the rails. On the contrary, Smith crafts a rather tense small-scale thriller once Mark Patton’s ruthless drug dealer shows up. If the first half of the movie relies on the uncomfortable connotations that accompany body horror, the final act is a more subtle mix of sexuality and suspense. No, Smith doesn’t set up a chess game between its matched protagonist and antagonist. Rather it’s a back-and-forth that relies on dialogues and the performances themselves. While the end result is a bit uneven, Smith makes it work as a tense overall viewing experience.
Swallowed Benefits From Confident, Layers Performances Across the Board
Much of Swallowed’s second half works due to the performances of its lead characters. There’s an undeniable chemistry between Cooper Koch’s (They/Them) ‘Benjamin’ and Jose Colon’s ‘Dom’ that lends the thriller a surprising bit of intimacy and sensitivity. What’s more surprising is that Swallowed represents Colon’s first major film role. Simply put, Colon shows off a bit of charisma and a lot of range in the role. But it’s the interactions between Koch and Mark Patton’s (A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge) unhinged drug dealer that defines the thriller’s closing act. It’s nice to see Patton back on screen and he sizzles with quite a bit of menace adding a lot of the suspense that’s in the movie.
It’s nice to see Patton back on screen and he sizzles with quite a bit of menace…
One the most pleasant surprises about Swallowed comes from Jena Malone’s performance as the tough hired gun, ‘Alice’. Following a breakout role in cult classic Donnie Darko has amassed an impressive resume including Smith’s underappreciated The Ruins. Here, Malone really disappears into the character, displaying an early toughness and survival instinct. Later in the thriller, Malone shows off some subtle layers to the character. Another minor complaint about Swallowed, however, is that it inevitably shortchanges Malone. Though Smith clearly positions ‘Alice’ as a background character, it’s still disappointing how the story leaves her.
Swallowed Mostly Overcomes Its Tonal Inconsistencies
There’s two different movies wrapped up in Carter Smith’s little indie movie. As a thriller, Swallowed is an often tense and surprisingly intimate effort. When Smith keeps his focus on the terse exchanges between his characters, everything works quite well. Yet both the promotional materials and even Smith himself tease a body horror movie a la David Cronenberg’s Shivers or Rabid. Though Swallowed teases bits of body horror it never really embraces the subgenre and. ultimately, discards this element by the third act. It’s a big stretch to even call this one a horror movie. but this shouldn’t detract from appreciating what’s a largely well-crafted thriller.