starring Cooper Koch, Jose Colon, Jena Malone, Mark Patton
written and directed by Carter Smith
by Walter Chaw Carter Smith's Swallowed is a bitter pill. It's cruel and sardonic, positing as its Emerald City the California porn industry and the lead role in a movie where "strangers cum on" the face of our hero, Benjamin (Cooper Koch). "But you look so sexy doing it," says Benjamin's cis but bi-curious friend, Dom (Jose Colon), and all the tender moments like this play as angry and insincere. I'm not saying the characters don't mean it, I'm saying the whole tenor of the film is punishingly nihilistic. When Benjamin later gives Dom a gentle kiss at a moment of crisis, it feels more cynical than romantic: one friend condescending to the performative allyship of another. Indeed, though Dom gushes that Benjamin means more to him than an entire parade of ex-girlfriends he lists off as proof, he also refuses to go to L.A. with Benjamin and doesn't, in any case, think he'll ever see him again. It's easy to say you love someone when every string attached is about to be cut. When Benjamin subsequently plants one on Dom, it's undercut by the film's overriding message that the world is dangerous for pretty boys like him; professions of love are more often self-serving than earnest. I confess I love Smith's The Ruins for that same uncompromising, nails-and-broken-glass nature, but here the chilliness makes Swallowed feel like an Ari Aster movie. It is, in other words, an asshole. Your tolerance for time spent in the company of a sentient sneer, one that either despises or patronizes its characters, will determine the extent to which you're able to find value in its depiction of interpersonal and systemic trauma focused in on the LGBTQ community.
Swallowed is not subtle about its themes. For a going-away present, Dom brings Benjamin along on his scheme to be a drug mule for terrifying, antic Alice (Jena Malone), swallowing condoms full of junk with the intention of shitting them out once they cross the border. The junk in question consists of some kind of worm whose venomous bite causes extended priapism, paralysis, and euphoria. It's also fatal--but fear not, Alice's partner, Rich (Mark Patton of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 infamy), has found someone who's figured out a way to milk the worms, leading to a bite-free ingestion strategy. Though it's not detailed, the purpose of the drug is to essentially create the ultimate submissive in a sub/dom relationship: a corpse with a boner. Swallowed is so pissed-off, even its illicit drug is a metaphor for the way that young, hot gay men are trafficked like cattle, turned out and objectified by creeps like Rich. To hammer the point, Smith stages Rich's entrance off-camera, staying on Benjamin's face as his attention snaps to the predator coming into the room even though he's in the process of essentially fisting his friend (the better to extricate Dom's latex-and-helminth payload). Rich lets us know he likes what he sees. When Rich is told that Benjamin is also carrying a bundle, Rich coos he'd like to be the one to go in after that one. Ew. For his part, Benjamin is established as the naïf who's only really seasoned in matters of sexual predation and victimization. He doesn't know anything, although he does know how to use his sexuality. It's a smart inversion of the femme fatale's traditional gender construct in movies like this, carried through an extended "seduction" where Benjamin strips down in front of Rich, takes a bath, rejects a towel in favour of drying off before a fire, and takes Rich for a little ride on the honey-trap express.
The best way to read Swallowed is as a splenetic allegory about sex and exploitation. Smith can't hide his rage at the state of things: how porn is portrayed as one attractive escape route for at-risk youth in the increasingly dangerous American hinterland; how the pool is filthy with sharks with a kink for the manifold varieties of intimately violating those same at-risk youths. Opening as a sort of Winter's Bone/Maria Full of Grace thriller, the picture retreats to a "cabin in the woods" scenario for its second half--not the demonic kind, more the home-invasion variety in which our handsome couple must find a way to escape their vile captors. Both halves are too programmatic to be uniquely effective as genre exercises, but what I did like (and perhaps I'm giving it too much credit for my own biases) is the shift from a young woman needing to use her body on purpose to save herself from having it used against her will to a young man. I liked, too, the obvious casting of Patton, a man who spent years alleging abuse over his non-consensual "outing" in the Elm Street sequel, as the bogey attempting to misuse another young man to satisfy his own sinister designs. Swallowed has some power as a particularly grimy Passion Play, a cautionary tale with a "happy" ending that earns its ambiguity and scare quotes. If it were less myopic, it might have more to say. As it is, it's mostly just ugly--and, frankly, I think it should be.