Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Pleasingly disconcerting." | Photo: Courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival

Dom (Jose Colon) and Benjamin (Cooper Koch) are best friends. It’s one of those really intense friendships which comes before almost everything else. It might almost be love, but Dom is straight and they’re not sleeping together, and Ben has never directly acknowledged the strength of his feelings. This may be part of the reason why he has decided to go away. It’s also because he has a big opportunity awaiting him. He’s going to Los Angeles, where he has a job as a porn star.

That phrase, ‘porn star’, makes them both laugh. It has a certain glamour to it. but Ben realises that it’s not all going to be fun and games, letting strangers do intimate things to his body for money. Dom is worried about him. He has always been his protector, fending off a hostile world, so before Ben goes away, he wants to give him some money to help him get out if things go wrong. Long story short, this is how the two of them find themselves being held at gunpoint one night and forced to swallow a series of packages before driving through a border checkpoint.

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Exactly what is in those packages is not discussed until later. When it is, it will give you David Cronenberg vibes, though its grotesque potential is never thoroughly explored. By then, things have already gone seriously wrong. When Dom becomes ill, the woman who initially threatened them (played by Jena Malone) tries to help, taking them both to a remote cabin and assuring them that the effects should wear off soon. When her boss arrives, however, things get a whole lot worse.

Relatively restrained in light of its potential (director Carter Smith has come a long way since The Ruins), this is a slice of body horror which puts the emphasis on the performers, with Colon’s tortured writhing making much more of an impact than any lurid special effects. Where the latter are concerned, a little goes a long way. Koch, meanwhile, keeps it simple early on, but when a later twist means that Ben needs to use his porn acting skills to survive, we really see what he’s capable of. There is inevitably some humour in these scenes but awareness of the threat he faces keeps the tension high regardless, and it becomes apparent that his journey has really been central to the film all along. He is a vulnerable young man learning how to take control of situations and make his own way in the world.

Malone doesn’t get much to do, but effectively conveys the moral quandaries of a woman who is no less human because she works on the wrong side of the law. As her boss, Mark Patton is a real force to be reckoned with. Superficially amiable but very, very dark, his character subverts expectations, emerging as an egotistical villain of the sort we rarely see onscreen these days. He dominates the screen, wielding power as much through force of personality as anything else, enabling Ben’s transformation and driving the film towards a satisfyingly dark end.

A simple story, well told, Swallowed compares and contrasts the various ways in which any number of people compromise their bodily integrity for cash. The chemistry between Dom and Ben will make you root for them regardless of what you think about their choices, and the confidence with which Smith brings the whole thing together makes it one of the most pleasingly disconcerting contributions to this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival line-up. Just don’t try this at home.

Reviewed on: 16 Jul 2022
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A creepy-crawly-fable of survival and heartwarming friendship.
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Director: Carter Smith

Starring: Jena Malone, Mark Patton

Year: 2022

Runtime: 92 minutes

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