Some of the most relevant thrillers, horror films, and dark dramas of the current age are the most quiet in their interrogation of the things our society holds dear. The Clovehitch Killer barely made a splash on the festival circuit in 2017, yet it remains a damning profile of the deceptive calm of white suburbia. Likewise, Dean Kapsalis’ feature debut The Swerve may not have a multimillion dollar marketing campaign behind it, but it nonetheless captures a social anxiety twitching behind the homely roles our social order holds up as aspirational. 

One phenomenal Azura Skye stars as wife and mother Holly, a woman dismissed, overlooked, and overworked in every role she plays. Her own family treats her with utter disdain, if they think about her at all. Her kids oscillate between ignoring their mother and treating her like hired help. Her husband (Bryce Pinkham) writes off nearly everything she says. Every interaction is laced with micro-aggressions. Her sister (Ashley Bell) calls her “Little Holly Hippo” despite Holly’s clear and vocal objections (which are also dismissed by her parents). She, like a deadly-serious Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect. On top of it all, the housewife suffers from insomnia that blurs the line of delineation between fantasy and reality. Bit by bit, Holly’s hold on her own suburban bliss slips in operatic slow-motion.

It all begins with a mouse. One single rodent invades her living space and from that point on, the story is Woman, Interrupted. Holly’s home life is dreamy on the surface; she is married to a man with a steady job, living in a spacious home with healthy, happy kids. But that damned mouse is the first domino to send her life spiraling down the drain and, it turns out, that serene home life chosen for her is not working out as prescribed. As the mouse burrows its way throughout the home, Holly’s psyche is likewise infested with a disillusionment that chafes and blisters into an explosive climax.

Kapsalis loves a good metaphor, and so The Swerve doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Beyond the rodent visitation, all-American symbols like apple pie are woven directly into the narrative with devastating results for all of the main players involved. A cut on Holly’s finger deteriorates parallel to her own mind; as the band-aid frays, so do her nerves. Editing jump-cuts from slight to slight against her, emphasizing just how chronically stretched-thin she is. Rather than torturing a woman for titillation, Kapsalis takes the Paul Schrader approach, highlighting each and every offense and watching its effect on a human being until an epic confrontation of body and mind is all but inevitable. With washed-out color palettes, harsh uncanny lighting, and a lens that swings between intense, intimate focus and frenzied glances, cinematographer Daryl Pittman’s visual storytelling supports the language of coldness that Kapsalis has infused throughout the story.

Azura Skye displays remarkable range of a woman unraveled. From the opening sequences, Holly is brittle but soldiers on through a world that takes her– and domestic roles at large– for granted. It’s no easy task to display an emotional spectrum from fatigue to lust to rage behind exhausted glassy eyes, and yet Skye commands the screen with a fragile mystique that feels familiar to any overworked parent/partner on the verge of finally snapping. In one sense, Kapsalis tells a story of connection and Holly’s lack thereof from the world around her, with disastrous consequences. From an absence of connection with her husband and children, to a conditional connection with her parents (she is tolerated more than she is loved), to a hollow tryst with misguided high school student Paul (Zach Rand), the film packs more commentary on connection and its ties to mental health in the final thirty minutes than Joker manages for its entire runtime. Skye, in her performance, deserves the same awe and praise that Rebecca Hall earned in the similarly bleak mental pot-boiler Christine (2016).

In 95 minutes, Kapsalis captures the hypnotic white noise that fills the void behind the white picket fence. With an archetypal yet opaque femme lead, the result is a story that recalls the late 60s/early 70s character studies from Polanski and Altman. The Swerve is a stellar subconscious call-to-arms for a society that routinely looks for bonds in all the wrong places and overlooks unconditional love when it’s been serving them breakfast every morning and asking about their day at quitting time. The movie was conceived and premiered pre-pandemic, but remains cognizant of a cultural strain that has become more pronounced with quarantine; we now see either the unsung stress that we put onto our caregivers and partners, or feel the absence of those who are no longer able to serve us every day as before. If nothing else, a simple message can be gleaned from Kapsalis: call your mother.

Arrow Video Frightfest Digital Review: The Swerve
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