I am dead inside.
The Swerve is horrifying. It is not because of a bloodthirsty serial killer, massive monster, or enraged spirit. It is because of its portrayal of desperation, mental health, and despair. It is a film that digs into the deepest fears that live within the subconscious and put them on screen, which is more terrifying than any paranormal entity.
Holly (Azura Skye) seems like the shining image of a woman’s American Dream. She’s married with two boys, works as a high school teacher, and has a lovely home with a front lawn. Add a minivan and bam, you have the image of a perfect mother. But, underneath the material items lies the truth: Holly is suffering. She takes medication to keep herself going. She stares at the ceiling instead of falling asleep. She implores her children to be kind and spend time with her when they’d rather abuse or ignore her. Her husband works long hours as a grocery store manager whose income is less than ideal. Her sister taunts her with stories of the past and appears at the worst times. She is a woman on the edge of a breakdown, which is emphasized by strange dreams and a mouse only she is able to see.
As her dreams get worse and the mouse wanders into her bedroom, Holly begins to descend into desperation. She wants love and finds it in destructive ways. She floats through life like a specter of despair, trying to keep herself and her family together while crumbling on the inside. Skye’s performance as Holly makes this breakdown even more heartbreaking. Her hollow facial expression and ability to convey despair, fury, confusion, and agony without uttering a word makes you want to reach into the screen and offer her a comforting embrace.
Instead of creating a personification of depression through a monster, director and writer Dean Kapsalis doesn’t try to hide mental illness. It is front and center, never masked by another name. Holly opens the medicine cabinet to take her medicine every morning, she refuses to eat in front of her family, she can’t fall asleep. There are no monsters lurking in the shadows that work to make her mental illness an otherworldly being. Her mental illness is her own, something that no one else can see, something she desperately tries to hide but realizes she can’t. I appreciate a film that wants to tackle the hell that is mental illness with such care without needing to create an elaborate metaphor; mental illness is scary enough and Kapsalis realizes that in The Swerve.
This film burrowed a hole into my brain and spread like a welcome infection. It infiltrated my subconscious and brought to the surface my deepest fears as someone who lives with a mental illness. Can I be a good partner, sister, and daughter with my mental illness? Would I make a good mother? How badly would I destroy my children? These thoughts float in and out of my brain regularly, but The Swerve really made me contemplate these questions and realize that my worst fear is my mental illness.
The Swerve is an extremely difficult film to watch. It is a film about experiencing a mental breakdown, after all. But it is beautifully done, working to focus on Holly, rather than trying to villanize her or make her seem stereotypically crazy. The Swerve may be one of the most terrifying films of this year.