I’ve been left a little bit stunned by The Swerve, Dean Kapsalis’ feature debut and a shocking, heartbreaking look at a mother’s spiral into mental illness. The film has been making the rounds at genre festivals, and while it isn’t a classic horror per se, the incidental facets of daily life and their devastating impact on those who are struggling with depression are as terrifying as any evil spirit.
Azura Skye gives a phenomenal performance as Holly, who appears to have a pretty good life, considering. But that’s to anybody who can’t see on the inside. Her husband Rob (Bryce Pinkham), an aspiring manager at a grocery store, is loving but inattentive. Their two teenage boys are cold yet demanding, refusing to help her in even the slightest. Holly teaches literature at a high school, a high-pressure job with few rewards other than catching the eye of one of her students. And then there’s Holly’s sister Claudia (Ashley Bell, great here in an against-type role), a wild child who has no issues poking at her insecurities.
Kapsalis doesn’t indulge in overdone Hollywood theatrics in capturing Holly’s descent. Instead, he captures her declining mental state with subtle gestures, from the greyish color palette in her style of dress to the increasingly haggard, despondent look in her eyes. What’s key about Holly’s situation is that nothing is truly out of the ordinary, and what makes The Swerve hit so close to home is how it depicts the way seemingly disconnected things can pile up. In an early scene, a mouse skitters across the kitchen floor and Holly freaks out. She wants it gone; Rob is dismissive of the issue and gets angry when she wants to call an exterminator. It’s like a trigger has been pulled. Just one thing too many.
A mystery lingers about the trustworthiness of Holly’s perspective, as well. How much of what she’s experiencing is real? And what is a figment of her emotional demons taking control of her mind? Adultery enters the mix, as well, but it’s unclear how much of it is fact and what is of her imagination. Holly is like a lot of people in that she yearns to be seen, to have someone recognize her, the things she does, and even as an object of desire. Not having that can drive a person to do extreme things.
There’s a lot here that’s really tough to watch, and I mean that in the best sense possible. The dread looms heavy, with an unconventionally ominous score adding to the mood. Skye’s withering performance has you heartbroken but also fearful, not just for her but the people around her. As women’s issues have been driven into the national spotlight over the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in genre films that explore motherhood and the needs of women to be more than just caretakers. The Swerve is among the best of these films and, while it’s not a movie one can say they necessarily “enjoy”, it definitely can’t be missed.