With Swallowed, writer-director Carter Smith expands upon a short film he made nearly two decades ago. The narrative follows Ben (Cooper Koch) and Dom (Jose Colon), who are out celebrating before Ben moves to Los Angeles. However, their night of dancing is cut short when Dom receives a call about something that needs to be done as soon as possible. So, the two drive off and meet with Alice (Jena Malone).
It turns out Dom’s doing a drug run for some quick cash. He plans to give Ben that money to help him settle in L.A. Alice tells Dom that the drugs need to be swallowed and delivered on time. After some hesitation, Dom does so, and the two drive toward the dropoff. Unfortunately, a guy picks a fight at a gas station because he’s a homophobic jerk. This opens up one of the baggies Dom ingested, causing him great pain. Alice swoops in to help, taking Ben and Dom to her boss’ place to safely remove the drugs. Her boss (Mark Paton) is unhappy with this turn of events. However, as Dom’s life continues to be in jeopardy, the day takes a sinister turn that no one could have predicted.
Swallowed is two movies in one. The first hour (just under, maybe) is a character-driven drama. Audiences observe the two leads as they grapple with the impending change to their relationship and what it means. Ben and Dom are engaging with depth and a built-in history that feels natural. Though, some aspects are unclear. For the first 30 minutes, I thought Ben and Dom were together. The way they talk and interact, plus Koch and Colon’s effortless chemistry, all suggest as much. But it turns out they are only best friends, with a will-they-won’t-they relationship.
Even considering this minor hiccup, the protagonists are easy to root for and like. And that is due to the actors. Colon’s love for his best friend is immediately evident, and he portrays the drug running as a truly selfless act. Koch is magnetic, charismatic, and later devious in a way that still holds true to the character as written. Unfortunately, even considering their solid performances, the characters’ backstories are not super compelling.
“…as Dom’s life continues to be in jeopardy, the day takes a sinister turn…”
It is in the second plotline that Swallowed finds itself. The last 30 or 40 minutes are about Dom, Ben, and Alice dealing with Patton’s drug overlord. Smith writes the role as very compulsive, doing instead of thinking. He then feels bad for his overreactions. It is both creepy and funny. It helps that Patton is terrifying. The way he speaks is menacing and elevates the part, despite not entering the picture for a while.
As the horror thriller aspects ratchet up, so too does viewers’ engagement. Because Patton is so good and this dramatic thriller finally focuses on one thing, the tension becomes unbearable. Of course, spoiling the end is no fun, so that’s where this will be left.
Now it is time to discuss the MVP of Swallowed: Jena Malone. She’s tough and confident but not without a softer side. Malone’s anger is understandable when she learns of the punch that kickstarts everyone’s troubles, while her desire to get help is never in question. The actor runs circles around everyone else in every scene she’s in. One wishes Malone was in more of the film because she is just that good.
Smith could make the character relationships clearer sooner while focusing the story on its core ingredients. Is this about two people discovering their love for each other? Perhaps the movie is an exploration of the dark side of humanity. Maybe the filmmaker is looking at the dangers of drug use. Yes, all those elements are present, but only one is explored to the fullest extent. Still, Swallowed features great acting, especially from Malone, and a truly intense final act that must be seen to be believed.
"…Jena Malone. She's tough and confident but not without a softer side."