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First Look Review - THE SWERVE

the swerve review
A suburban teacher's mental health grows increasingly unstable.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Dean Kapsalis

Starring: Azura Skye, Ashley Bell, Deborah Hedwall, Bryce Pinkham, Zach Rand

the swerve poster





God, but misery is easy to do. How effortless it is to bring someone else down, and, in storytelling, what a shortcut to apparent profundity mere gloom is. It’s why Coronation Street currently has yet another dying child storyline in the mix, and seemingly the entire rationale behind the careers of overrated chancers like Aronofsky and NoĆ© (also, The Devil All the Time). This predominant con trick of duping a gullible audience into believing they have seen something moving and emotionally complex: a duplicitous result of their emotions having been clumsily manipulated. And, yet, here comes Dean Kapsalis’ devastating The Swerve, wherein a suburban homemaker (just on the border of middle age) superficially all set with the picture perfect heteronormative dream - nice house, middle management husband, two kids and a comfortable career as a high school teacher - experiences a prolonged, meticulous breakdown. Creating an affecting and intricate portrait of domestic misery, it is a feat of genuine humanity and one of this year’s unmissable films.

the swerve review

(Full disclosure: I originally saw The Swerve as part of FrightFest’s digital festival last month. Prior to watching it - chosen as the festival closer, no less - I had no intention of reviewing the film. However, around half-way through watching The Swerve this changed, and over the next few days I contacted Kapsalis for a screener so I could write about his film which had impressed me so much. Don’t think I’ve ever done that before. This isn’t going to be a hagiography - I am a professional, after all - but if I cannot use this platform to spread the gospel then what is it worth, eh?)

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Azura Skye (TV famous for froth like Buffy and sit-com Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane) is spectacular as Holly, a mother who is the lynchpin of her family home, dutifully ministering to her two teenage sons and her careerist husband: a triumvirate of ungrateful shits who treat Holly with casual disdain or simply take her for granted. It is draining. This is a grim revival of ‘The Woman’s Film’, a 2020 ‘times up’ iteration of the genre, with all the gorgeous Sirkian technicolour now curdled to muted greys and sour milk whites, but retaining a central character who is both vital to the circumstances she exists within, yet excluded from any meaningful status within that world. Kapsalis initiates his film with an alarm clock rudely shrieking, and harried morning routines (is there anything more likely to make you hate your life than getting ready for work?), before segueing into Holly’s tired kitchen chores. We see her peel carrots, a mass of slimy rust coloured skins growing on the counter. There is no more joyless kitchen task than peeling, be honest, and peeling carrots no less. It is the cruel selection of details which sell the quotidian miserable in The Swerve.

the swerve review

And all this before Holly is off to work teaching English in the local high school (a job which involves tangible, almost constant, frustration). As a person I originally watched The Swerve with pointed out (a high school English teacher too, funnily enough - hi Jezel!), the grinding circumstances of Holly’s life, and her ensuing splintering, are due to nothing especial, no specific trauma: just the callous indifference, the entitled expectations which come with her role, which is in turn defined by a male engineered hegemony; the myth of familial happiness. This is an emerging trend in modern horror, seen most viscerally in Hereditary (I think all of that guy’s films, especially the early, pervier ones, are satires of heterosexuality). Unlike Ari Aster’s freakout though, The Swerve is a more subtle, credible affair, balancing its cynicism with an insistent humanity.

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This is due to Skye’s performance. A beautiful, cheerful woman in other works, here she is pinched and soured, her angular bone structure and whirlpool eyes a manifestation of her brittle, fragile mindset. A rat in her kitchen is an early metonym of her neurasthenia, cheekily evading traps and biting Holly’s hand when she fishes underneath her bed for an errant shoe. The wound festers symbolically throughout the running time, and a further catalyst occurs when Holly - escaping from a miserable encounter at her disapproving mother’s house - maybe, perhaps runs a couple of yahoos off the road after they harangue her and call her a stupid cunt. Although this is a real punch the air moment, I’m not sure the film needs it: the idea of guilt and confusion following the pseudo-accident is an irresistible narrative hook for the trailer, and, indeed, is where the film gets its title from, but I prefer the lack of incident in Holly’s life, the unremarkable defeat which I am sure so many people face on a day to day basis.

the swerve review

Holly seems most alive in the supermarket: this is when the film is suffused in deep and shiny colour, the heaped fruits and veg promising hope and happiness, the freshly stocked aisles - ‘live naturally!’ - an abundance of culinary potential. Food, the imaginative, hungry possibilities of it and its disappointing realities are central to The Swerve, wherein it transpires that Holly suffers from an eating disorder which will lead to the film’s blackly comic, fatal denouement. Along the way there is a deeply uncomfortable affair with one of her students, who in himself sees Holly not as a person, but an earnest adolescent fantasy. Holly, in her turn, sexually abuses him in a desperate attempt at balancing her self-worth and self-loathing. Daryl Pittman’s camera observes, rather than judges, creeping about the homestead and Holly’s life as an unseen observer, and essaying a compelling and sickeningly believable representation of quiet suburban insanity. In amongst the (rather good) pencilled nudes of Holly which her besotted student scribbles at the back of her class, the words ‘Somewhere Else’ are plaintively scribed. For Holly this is a plea that remains unfulfilled, but for the rest of us, The Swerve is Something Else.

The Swerve is on US VOD from September 22nd. A UK/ROI release has yet to be announced.




2020 movie reviews