Frightfest 2020 review: The Swerve
Dean Kapsalis crafts an unnerving sketch of a tired woman and a tired country going off the rails
Written by Anton Bitel
It is clear from early on in The Swerve, the feature debut of writer/director Dean Kapsalis, that Holly (Azura Skye) is a car crash waiting to happen. You can see it in the mouse that she, and she alone, sees first in the kitchen and then in the upstairs bedroom of her family home, signifying - like the proverbial bats in the belfry or kangaroos in the top paddock - a disruption to psychological stability. You can see it in the medication that she frequently takes for a sleeping disorder that makes it hard for her to tell her dreams from her waking life. You can see it in her relationship with her supermarket manager husband Rob (Bryce Pinkham) and her sons Ben (Taen Phillips) and Lee (Liam Seib), all three in their way self-absorbed boys who take entirely for granted all the cleaning and cooking that she does for them, and who broadly ignore her.
You can see it in her brittle relationship with her sister Claudia (Ashley Bell), a wasted wrecking ball who relapses no less often into her old adolescent rivalries with Holly as into her various addictions. You can see it in Holly's evolving and increasingly inappropriate relationship with Paul (Zach Rand), a pupil in the High School English class that she teaches and the only person who, for all his own problems, appears actually to see Holly for who she is. "Somewhere else" is the accurate caption that Paul adds to his sketch of the distracted Holly sitting at her desk in front of the class - and when he gifts her a butterfly pendant, he comments, "It reminds me of you", in recognition of the metamorphosis which she craves.
Mostly, though, you can see it in Holly's regular visions - whether they are dreams, or actual experiences, or delusions, or premonitory flashes forward - of swerving violently off the road in her car. This is the event - or events - which literalise the otherwise metaphorical title of Kapsalis' film. For The Swerve is a portrait of a woman gradually losing her grip on the wheel. "Is it always gonna be like this?", Holly asks despairingly after sex with her husband. "Look at me!", she shouts in another sex scene, in words that tell of what she really desires: not to feel so invisible, undervalued and replaceable. All the sex in The Swerve is joyless and grim, as Kapsalis' film, not unlike Carlo Mirabella-Davis' Swallow (2019), shows a woman caught in deep domestic unhappiness, and hungering for a way out.
Twice in the film Holly is shown cooking apple pies, spicing them up with one untraditional ingredient or another - and she also denies a key story from her childhood about an apple pie. This recurring motif captures our hangdog heroine's difficult relationship with both food and with her narrative about herself. Apple pie is also, famously, a symbol of wholesome homespun Americanness, suggesting that the malaise which takes hold of Holly and sends her swerving off the straight and narrow may reflect a broader despondency simmering against the nation's prevailing patriarchy. Yet as we watch Holly violently deviating from the American way, we are also seeing Kapsalis arrive fully formed.
Director: Dean Kapsalis
Screenwriter: Dean Kapsalis
Cast: Azura Skye, Bryce Pinkham, Ashley Bell, Zach Rand, Taen Phillips, Liam Seib
Distributor: Epic Pictures
Running time: 95 mins