In the tradition of Repulsion, The Swerve takes a disturbing look at a woman on the edge. The result is one of the great horror sleepers of 2020.
The Swerve is one of the most disturbing films I’ve seen in some time, and I mean that as the highest form of praise.
Horror is most effective when it’s subjective, filtering events through the eyes and mind of a potentially unreliable narrator. This approach becomes even more nerve-racking when said narrator is in the throes of anxiety. Think Catherine Deneuve’s nuanced, near-mute performance in Repulsion.
For a more recent comparison, I’d align The Swerve‘s protagonist, Holly (Azura Skye) with Grace (Riley Keough) in The Lodge. Both characters are haunted by familial trauma; both are left to care for cold, distant children; and both have husbands (or husbands-to-be) that seem blissfully unaware of their needs (emotional and otherwise).
Grace begins her journey in a state of hesitancy. When we first see Holly, her face is sunken and her cheer forced – she’s been at the end of her rope for some time.
Holly is a high-school English teacher. Her sons are id-driven teenage nightmares. And husband Rob (Bryce Pinkham) – manager of a local grocery store – has been keeping late hours. To complicate matters, her sister Claudia (Ashley Bell) is out of rehab and back in town. Meanwhile, Holly becomes fixated on one of her students (Zach Rand).
One of the popular sentiments on Twitter over the past couple years has been “I’m so tired.” And without delving too much into where I stand on the State of the Union at this juncture, The Swerve resonates as an encapsulation of things being at their lowest point.
Holly’s emaciated figure is striking on a visceral level – we’re surprised she has the energy to get out of bed and go to work, let alone take care of the people in her life (comparisons to Christian Bale in The Machinist are apt). But as she pushes herself further and further past the brink, her perception becomes increasingly fragmented.
I was once weary of the quarantine situation. Then my own sense of time began to blur.
And now, not unlike Holly, I find myself exhausted by the actions (or inactions) of others. Her character embodies a thesis: at what point do one’s efforts become an exercise in futility? Her kids are unsympathetic, and Rob is dismissive when she attempts to express her grief (“get your meds checked,” is his advice).
And then there’s the rat. First sighted near the kitchen trash can, it becomes an ongoing part of Holly’s unraveling existence.
In one of the film’s many unsettling moments, the rodent stares her down as she sits awake in bed. Whether or not the rat is real (she’s the only one who sees it), the notion of something nibbling away at her sanity is undeniable.
Writer-director Dean Kapsalis has created a masterful character study that far exceeds something like the hackneyed Hereditary. Holly’s actions become erratic, going into taboo territory, and the question of whether she’s completely in control is omnipresent.
But Skye’s performance is so powerful – a bubbling cauldron of despair, repression and rage – it creates genuine sympathy for the character. Are her experiences exaggerated or even real?
Not unlike Grace’s actions in The Lodge, there is a certain poetic justice to the measures Holly takes in The Swerve‘s final act.
Bruce Campbell once said of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant: “I felt like I was going crazy alongside the main character.” The Swerve continues that tradition, but removes any sense of humor from the proceedings. It’s as dark and emotionally bruising as films get, and one of my favorites of this wearying year.
You can catch The Swerve on Google Play, YouTube, Fandango NOW, VUDU, Microsoft, DirecTV and Redbox.
Have you seen The Swerve? What did you think of it? Let us know in the comments.