September 25, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Dean Kapsalis
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Virginia city, the dramatic film “The Swerve” has a nearly all-white cast (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: A woman with mental-health issues begins having problems at home, which affect other aspects of her life.
Culture Audience: “The Swerve” will appeal to people who don’t mind seeing dark depictions of someone having a mental breakdown.
The dark psychological portrait “The Swerve” is one in a long list of movies about mentally ill women who are a danger to themselves and to other people. However, the harrowing performance of lead actress Azure Skye, as well as the haunting musical score by Mark Korven, make this movie a cut above most of these types of trauma films. Viewers should be warned that “The Swerve” is unrelentingly depressing, so anyone in the mood to see a movie with an upbeat tone or some sense of humor should avoid “The Swerve” altogether.
“The Swerve” (the feature-film debut of writer/director Dean Kapsalis) isn’t particularly well-written, so it won’t be considered a classic film. Skye’s memorable portrayal of a desperately unhappy wife and mother is what holds this film together, because the movie’s pace tends to drag for too long, and the story leaves many questions unanswered. If people want to go down the messy rabbit hole of the mind of someone having a nervous breakdown, then “The Swerve” immerses people in that experience.
In the beginning of the movie, which takes place in an unnamed Virginia city (“The Swerve” was actually filmed in Roanoke), Skye’s character Holly appears to be a typical middle-class wife and mother. She’s an English literature teacher at a local high school. Her husband Rob (played by Bryce Pinkham), who is a manager at a local supermarket, appears to be a loving and devoted spouse. Holly and Rob have two sons: athletic Ben (played by Taen Phillips), who’s about 16 years old, and chubby Lee (played by Liam Seib), who’s about 13 years old.
To the outside world, the family doesn’t seem to have any major problems. Ben and Lee have typical sibling squabbles. Holly and Rob are having financial issues, but nothing that would leave them broke and homeless. Their financial situation is mentioned during a morning when everyone is getting ready to go to work or school, and Holly sees a small mouse in the kitchen. The mouse freaks her out to the point where she tells Rob that she’s going to call an exterminator.
Rob questions Holly for making that decision to pay for an exterminator, because he says that she doesn’t have much cash left and “we’re barely holding things together.” Holly and Rob are hopeful that he will get a job promotion, but until that happens, they’re struggling financially. Holly ends up getting a mouse trap to deal with the mouse problem. And when the mouse trap doesn’t work, she leaves out food that’s been laced with rodent poison.
Shortly after laying out the mousetrap in the kitchen, Holly is in her bedroom, reaching for a shoe underneath her bed, when she seems to get bitten by an unknown creature, which Holly is convinced is the mouse. Holly’s finger is bleeding, so she goes to a hospital to get medical treatment, which ends up being just a small bandage. Holly has told the medical professionals who are treating her wound that she’s been bitten by a mouse, but when she asks if she should get a rabies shot, she’s told it won’t be necessary. It’s the first of many signs that Holly’s perspective is “unreliable.”
Seeing the mouse seems to have triggered something in Holly, because she starts having nightmares about the mouse. She wakes up to find the mouse in her bedroom at various times. And she has other nightmares about a hit-and-run incident that might or might not have happened, which is the reason why this movie is called “The Swerve.”
In what appears to be flashback memories, Holly is seen driving alone at night on a deserted road where there’s only one lane going in each direction. A car behind her appears to be tailgating her. Holly becomes increasingly frustrated and starts saying aloud that the driver of the other car needs to go around her.
The car ends up passing her, and when it does, she sees a guy in his late teens or early 20s leaning out of the front passenger window, and he calls her a derogatory, sexist name. The next thing you know, an enraged Holly swerves into the other car. What happens after that is not shown on screen.
Later, Holly is shown going back to the scene where this apparent road rage incident happened. There are memorial flowers at the side of the road, as if someone had died there. And there’s a noticeable skid mark that leads to this makeshift memorial. When she sees the memorial, she goes back to her car and vomits. (There are other vomiting scenes in the movie which are much more nauseating.)
Did Holly commit a hit-and-run crime? And if she did, was it for the reason that’s shown in her flashback memory? Those questions might be answered in the movie, but there are many troubling signs that Holly, who’s on various medications for depression, isn’t just depressed. She has hallucinations and blackouts too.
Her husband Rob tells her one day that on a previous night, she had come home after being missing for some hours. He found her asleep on the couch with an apparent fever. And when he woke her up, she scratched him so deeply that the bloody scratch marks are still visible on his neck. When he shows her the scratch marks, Holly says she doesn’t remember any of that happening.
There are also two subplots that get weaved into Holly’s tangled web of mental illness. First, Holly has a troubled relationship with her 37-year-old younger sister named Claudia (played by Ashley Bell), who has recently moved back to the area. Claudia is the “black sheep” of the family because she’s a frequently unemployed recovering alcoholic/addict. Claudia is currently living with her and Holly’s mother Beth (played by Deborah Hedwall), who tends to coddle and enable Claudia.
Claudia has a lot of self-loathing because she hasn’t really gotten her life together, but she also has a certain amount of pride that prevents her from accepting other people’s help. During a family dinner at Beth’s house (with Holly, Rob, Beth and Claudia in attendance), Rob tells Claudia that he can help get her a job at the supermarket where he works. Claudia immediately dismisses the idea and says it would be pathetic for her to be bagging groceries at this stage in her life.
At first, the family reunion dinner seems to start out smoothly. Holly has brought an apple pie to the dinner (a recurring plot device in the movie is Holly making apple pie), and when Holly and Claudia see each other, they greet each other warmly and say how much they missed each other. It isn’t said outright, but it’s implied that Holly and Claudia haven’t seen each other in years.
But those family pleasantries eventually fade, as long-simmering resentments start to resurface after that dinner happens. Holly seems to be jealous of the younger, prettier and more outgoing Claudia, who appears to be their mother’s favorite child. Claudia starts drinking and hanging out with Rob, who one night comes home drunk with Claudia.
Holly suspects that Claudia and Rob are getting a little too flirtatious with each other. Holly has the same suspicions about Rob and some of his female co-workers. There’s a scene where Holly sees Rob and a female co-worker kissing romantically in a back room of the supermarket, but they don’t see her. Did this really happen or is it something that Holly hallucinated?
There’s also a hint that the tension-filled family dynamics between Holly and Claudia involves a past tragedy that isn’t fully revealed in the movie. During an argument between Holly and Claudia, Holly mentions something that happened with their grandmother when the sisters were teenagers. It’s something that was apparently so traumatic that the family doesn’t like to talk about it.
However, Holly gives some clues about what could have happened when she shouts at Claudia during the argument: “The night that Nana made that pie, you weren’t even there! You’re the one that didn’t! I didn’t try to humiliate you!”
It’s something that’s thrown in the story to show that there are some dark family secrets, but it’s an example of how the movie brings some things up and then leaves them hanging without further explanation. Perhaps these loose threads to the story are to convey the disjointed way that an increasingly unhinged Holly thinks, but this type of vagueness just muddles the story’s plot and is likely to confuse many viewers.
The second subplot in Holly’s nervous breakdown has to do with an introverted, artistic teenager named Paul (played by Zach Rand), who is a student in Holly’s class and who is also a cashier at the supermarket where Rob works. Paul is 16 or 17 years old. One day, Paul and another student have a scuffle in her classroom because the other student has taken Paul’s sketchbook. Holly breaks up the fight and confiscates the sketchbook.
When Holly goes home to look at Paul’s sketches, she sees that there are some illustrations of naked people engaged in sex acts and a cheerleader attacked by a dragon. There’s also a drawing of man drinking alcohol in a chair, with the sketch titled “Dear Old Dad.” (It’s an obvious sign that Paul’s father is probably an alcoholic.)
And there’s another illustration that catches Holly’s eye: a drawing of her in the classroom. The way that it’s drawn clearly shows that Paul has had a secret crush on her. It’s very easy to see where this is probably going to go, considering that Holly is deeply unhappy in her marriage and she isn’t talking to Rob about any inner turmoil that she’s having.
Throughout “The Swerve,” the cello-heavy music of Korven is an ominous foreshadowing that things aren’t going to go well for many people in this story. The music is a coincidentally a little reminiscent of Hildur Guðnadottir’s Oscar-winning musical score for the 2019 film “Joker,” but the score is laid on much thicker in “The Swerve”—almost to the point where some people might consider the music too distracting. There’s no denying that the music is chilling and goes a long way in conveying all the misery that’s in this movie.
In fact, there’s no one in this movie who can be considered a happy person—not even Holly and Rob’s two young sons, who are constantly fighting with each other. Anyone who sees “The Swerve” should be prepared to see a lot of scenes of Holly moping around in various states of dishevelment. Unfortunately, these scenes tend to be repetitive and don’t do much to give further insight into her personality or answer many questions that the film ends up leaving unanswered.
For example, it’s never really made clear how long Holly has been suffering from this mental illness and if it’s something that Rob knew about before he married her. Holly and Rob’s marriage is used as a plot device for the most disturbing things that happen in the movie, so a little more context about their marriage would help. The only thing that’s clear is that Holly has had “episodes” related to her mental illness before, and Rob has been extraordinarily patient with her.
As for that hit-and-run crime that Holly is keeping a secret, the movie shows whether or not she confesses to the crime and if she gets punished for it. “The Swerve” isn’t really a crime thriller as much as it is a gloomy psychological drama that shows the horrors of mental illness. The real swerve in this movie is the main character’s swerve into insanity that results in a different type of wreckage.
Epic Pictures released “The Swerve” on digital and VOD on September 22, 2020.