Written by Zoe Rose Smith
Bleak landscapes in film often portray the harshest of realities about the human condition; looking at how the different emotions can affect a personality in ways that might cause one person to break and another to thrive. Film is the one medium in which can be utilised to show just how despairing life can be even when there is nothing that can be pinpointed as the cause for concern. Dean Kapsalis presents the audience with a stark look at mental health through his 2020 psychological horror film The Swerve, which received rave reviews from its premiere at FrightFest digital edition. However, talking about mental health shouldn’t immediately grant a film a positive status which seems to have been the case when it comes to The Swerve.
Holly lives the seemingly perfect life from anyone looking outside in: She has a stable and good job as a teacher at a school, a doting and successful husband and two teenage boys, who although unruly, aren’t anything worse than the normal teenagers you would expect. However, Holly is struggling with insomnia, a previous eating disorder, family dysfunctions and discontentment in the life that should be considered “perfect”. As she begins to become more disillusioned with the life that she is living, fragments of time and reality become a consistent blur leaving Holly not being able to distinguish the moments of her life that are genuinely happening and those that are caused by the disjointed synapses in her mind.
The Swerve is a film that grips at the throat of the viewer from the very beginning, and keeps a tight grip throughout, only allowing the viewer shallow and stifled breathing throughout causing a constant discomfort. It is one of those horror movies that from the very start you know is going to stabilise a dreaded atmosphere that makes you feel sick to your stomach and will leave you feeling depressed for days afterwards. It is this oppressive and ominous tension that makes the film uneasy to watch, and could be comparable to films like Funny Games, Hounds of Love or We Need To Talk About Kevin. Even though it has a similar vibe to these highly successful disturbing and bleak films, it doesn’t seem to convey any real message and instead tries to force the blame onto mental illness without really allowing the audience to understand what could potentially be going on inside Holly’s mind.
We watch as Holly becomes more and more confused by her own state, and it becomes more and more jarring to watch her spiral into an abyss of dark thoughts. Azura Skye is absolutely outstanding as Holly, and doesn’t for a moment allow her guard to drop and us to see past the devastating portrayal of a woman going through absolute Hell with no-one or nowhere to turn to. Her facial expressions are pained throughout the entirety of the film, her soulless eyes pierce through every interaction she has and we can really begin to feel that emotive connection with Holly’s character through the screen. Skye is the centrepiece of this film and holds the horror together with her performance that cannot be faulted.
Bleak films have a poignant place in cinema and have time again shown mental illness as something that can cause destruction to anyone. The Swerve focuses on detailing Holly’s horrific journey with mental illness, her eating disorder and the trauma caused by her distasteful sister, and leaves us guessing at every step whether those around her are purposefully out to spite her or whether her medication combined with her fragile state of mind are really causing a disjointed narrative that leaves her making chaotic decisions that could sabotage the life she has built for herself. However, we are also presented with the idea that perhaps she wants to dismantle that life and disrupt the perfection of it to escape the mundane routine of her lifestyle. These are questions left unanswered throughout the film, which make it hard to confront the final sequence which is a gut-wrenching punch to the stomach. Some movies don’t have happy endings and The Swerve presents one of the most distressing and grim endings to be shown on film; there’s nothing comforting about it and it truly does make you confront the true horrors of what can happen when someone crying out for help doesn’t receive an ounce of attention.
The problem with The Swerve is that the messaging it tries to portray doesn’t feel strong enough, and therefore leaves the film feeling as if wasn’t needed. Granted, there are many merits to bleak, daunting and heartbreaking films but during a period in society where we have only been presented with dreary news and a constant barrage of negativity, did we really need a film like The Swerve? Perhaps for some it is a cathartic experience, but for many of us this will feel like another stab in the back that we didn’t quite need right now unless there was some important lesson to be learnt about mental illness, which doesn’t come across. With that said, The Swerve is a powerful and horrific film that won’t loosen it’s tightening grip around your throat, but it’s one you should prepare yourself for and accept that you’ve committed to watching a movie designed to cause nothing but distress and suffering to the viewer.
Verdict: 3 out of 5