Fantasia 2022 Swallowed review
Not all films are created equal. One can leave a theatre overjoyed by what they just viewed, bitterly disappointed, or bored out of their mind. The movies that prove more dubious for analysis are those unfortunate examples that have someone slowly walk out of the screening room thinking “Well, it certainly wasn’t bad…but it could have been a bit better, no?” When it comes to the Fantasia Film Festival, plenty of movies arrive with hype. Some are hyped to the umpteenth degree whereas others arrive with whispers of greatness, of something unique awaiting audiences. Swallowed, from director Carter Smith, falls into the latter category. It’s also one of those movies that produce the previously described sentiment of slight disappointment. It isn’t bad, but it could be better.
Benjamin (Cooper Koch) is a young gay man living in a remote town in Maine. Not for long though. He is on the cusp of greener pastures by moving to Los Angeles to be a porn star. On the night he and his apparently straight friend Dom (Jose Colon) are celebrating the career change, Dom mentions a going away present. Money, bluntly. That sounds perfectly fine until Benjamin realizes all too late that obtaining the gift entails a night of drug running for Alice (Jena Malone). Dom doesn’t have the money on him, it must be earned. Into their mouths go little balls filled with what Alice describes as spectacularly effective escapism. Go across the Canadian border, get the balls out from the proverbial back door and call her back. This is a horror movie, so nothing goes according to plan. One of the tiny packages Dom swallowed erupts and the results are startling, to say the least.
Major spoilers shall be avoided, but in the vaguest terms possible, Swallowed is a film of two halves.
This arguably makes for a frustrating viewing experience, the sort that commences with gusto and promise, only to take a sharp turn and trail in a direction that simply isn’t as thrilling. Granted, there are some silly aspects to the set-up that may encourage some viewers to ask questions early on. Dom promises to give his good friend money as a going away present. Wonderful. Via a drug deal? True enough, Dom hadn’t expected handler Alice to ask of them as much as she does. He seems legitimately caught off guard by her aggression and the sort of task she orders him and Benjamin to execute.
Director Smith handles the material in the early goings with aplomb. An unnerving balancing act of tension and awkward humour is achieved as the two men are forced into a situation with complications way over their heads. The Academy aspect ratio, a rare choice these days, emphasizes the suffocating stress. Carter Smith and his cast find little moments of black humour and character development that set the tone for what is to come. Benjamin is initially furious about Dom’s gobsmacking, clumsy idea of a parting gift, but eventually the two realize that they have no choice but to ride it out. From this situation of unease and fear emerges a level of tenderness. It turns out that Dom may have deeper feelings towards Benjamin than merely his being bro.
It’s all pretty decent and, yes, presents a story with queer overtones demonstrating that queer people have recognizable, confusing feelings just like everybody. Boosting the quality is an impressive performance from Cooper Koch as Benjamin. The young actor has charisma, wit, and can flip his emotions on a dime, a crucial element considering the whirlwind of misadventures the two friends go through. Jena Malone is a stranger to no one who has followed pop culture for the past decade. She is a star and can do just about anything. Her Alice is another highlight, lending the character a complicated mixture of moxie at first, then reluctant concern when it becomes obvious that the operation has not only gone awry, but Dom’s health is suddenly at risk.
Then the Alice’s boss shows up, played by Mark Patton of Nightmare on Elm Street 2 fame. This is the moment when Swallowed loses speed. That isn’t to say that director Smith delivers a rollicking pace during the first half. Time is allotted for some character development, not to mention that building tension itself merits a deliberate pace. Even so, the movie has a sense of momentum during the early goings. We get character, we get scares, we get some queasy reveals about the drug the protagonists are carrying in them, and it’s executed with relative deftness.
Unfortunately, everything comes to a screeching halt once Patton enters the fray. Some decisions are made that result in the final act revolving around Benjamin and the boss more so than on the unlikely trio that had given the picture life. Patton’s performance is also a bit confusing. Is he really threatening? Is he playing the part to the hilt, or with tongue firmly planted in cheek? He is funny sometimes, but not nearly as much as he may or may not intend to be. It’s a curious choice that leaves the character ill-defined. The fact that he takes over the proceedings so late in the movie doesn’t help matters either. Bluntly, he isn’t as interesting as Dom or Alice.
There is some good stuff in Swallowed. A great lead performance, some good supporting ones, and a diabolically dangerous premise that offers some icky surprises. On the flip side, the movie can’t sustain its early momentum. In fact, it seems to make a deliberate choice to make a full stop in its own tracks to do something completely different that just isn’t as engaging. A decent effort, but ultimately a tough pill to swallow.
The 26th edition of the Fantasia International Film Festival will run from July 14 – August 3, 2022.