My guess would be that anyone who saw The Swerve at Cinepocalypse yesterday needed to stop by that Child’s Play speakeasy, because this is the kind of film that will have you staring into your bucket of buttery popcorn wondering what the point to it all is…
…But don’t get me wrong, I mean that in the best possible way. Some of the greatest cinema is of the punishing variety, and to say The Swerve is punishing would be an understatement. The debut feature of writer/director Dean Kapsalis, The Swerve tells the story of Holly (wonderfully played by Azura Skye), a stressed mother of two who finds herself spiraling into madness after she causes an accident which leaves a couple of teens dead…or did she?
It must be said that any film which follows a protagonist dealing with a mental break is no easy feat, yet Azura Skye makes it look easy with a devastating performance as Holly that will rip your heart in two. It’s impossible not to feel for Holly in an all too real portrayal of a woman being crippled by the distant presence of a family which has laid all responsibilities at her feet. She cooks, she cleans, gets the kids to school where she teaches, always doing her best to make everyone happy. Yet again and again her efforts go unappreciated by her husband, Rob (Bryce Pinkham) and her two sons, Ben (Taen Phillips) and Lee (Liam Seib). Not even her own family, especially her bratty sister, Claudia (with an always exceptional performance from Ashley Bell), seem to notice, with Claudia even throwing out a pie Holly bakes for her. Holly is the epitome of an ignored mother and an emotionally abused wife, with The Swerve demonstrating the true to life nightmare that suburban life can be for a mother.
Skye’s mesmerizing performance pulls us in for a first-hand descent into madness. Kapsalis embeds us so deeply into the daily life of Holly, that every insult, every ungrateful look from her sons, comes off as one painful blow after another for the audience. The Swerve is a profoundly dark, uncomfortable film that will have you screaming at Holly’s family to, for once in their miserable lives, pay attention to her and notice that something is wrong. The Swerve constantly had me thinking of my own mother, and the times I may have made her feel the way that Ben and Lee do by simply refusing to help cook, or by not saying thank you for dinner. And that’s Holly’s biggest problem. It isn’t that she barely remembers possibly causing those teens to be run off the road, or is worried about rabies from a rat bite: it’s that everyone barely notices she exists.
Everyone except her student, Paul (Zach Rand). We follow Holly and the ignorance of her family so closely, that it’s near applause worthy when she begins to take notice of Paul’s sultry glances, but this isn’t the erotic thriller which that might imply. Kapsalis instead takes those expectations and finds new and highly disturbing ways to portray a woman willing to do anything for someone to just care about her actions, good or bad. From the second we meet Holly until the bitter end, Kapsalis masterfully crafts a story ripe with tension. There is not a single scene in The Swerve that doesn’t contain some element of discomfort or ugliness. You’ll feel like you’re on a constant loop, driving down that dark bend in the road, waiting with baited breath for the inevitable crash.
If there’s any criticism of The Swerve, it’s that this isn’t a story we haven’t seen before. In fact, some of us, like myself, have grown tired of always seeing women being presented as the unstable one of the family that can’t handle the stress. But to Kapsalis’ credit, The Swerve is so well written and imbued with so much of his own, personal style and ability to portray grief, that this film stands on its own. A lot of that can be credited to the editing, done by Kapsalis and Alec Styborski. When we first meet Holly, she’s driving at night to an elegant score from Mark Korven, her hands mysteriously bloody. And then suddenly, we jump back in time, and from there, time becomes fluid, never remaining in a straight line. The Swerve spins us around and around through Holly’s story to the point where it feels as fractured as Holly’s mind. Seeing this film through her unreliable point of view, we don’t know what’s real, or what really happened. The only constant is Holly’s ever darkening eyes, a visual sign of her slow descent.
As you can probably imagine, The Swerve is not the sort of film that ends with rainbows and butterflies. In fact, the ending is one that will likely have you asking what even is the meaning of life, and is maybe even a little misguided when it comes to who deserves true punishment. Yet, again remaining true to life, The Swerve is a tragic, depressing experience from beginning to end where things don’t always work out the way they should. I don’t think it’s unfair to even say it’s a bit of a downer, but that isn’t at all meant to be a criticism. Think Requiem for a Dream, and you’ll know what I mean. The Swerve is a painful film, told with such power and elegant suspense that we’d all be mad not to keep a close eye on whatever Kapsalis does next.
By Matt Konopka