The Swerve. 2018. Directed & Written by Dean Kapsalis.
Starring Azura Skye, Bryce Pinkham, Ashley Bell, Zach Rand, Taen Phillips, Liam Seib, Deborah Hedwall, & Dan Daily.
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains spoilers
Nothing wrong with liking to take care of others. Neither is there anything negative about someone feeling comfort in the domestic parts of life. It’s only bad when we force people into those roles. Most often it’s women in our society who are forced, or left with no choice but to become the caretakers— the ones who keep it all from falling apart. But who’s there for them when they inevitably need help keeping it together?
Who’ll help them from coming undone?
Dean Kapsalis’s The Swerve is about Holly, whose life is on the verge of crumbling before her eyes. Something’s not quite right in her day to day. She teaches at school, she comes to cook, to clean, look after the kids while her husband Rob spends late nights working as a manager at the grocery store. Normal enough.
Well, beneath the surface are cracks opening wider and wider. So wide they threaten to swallow Holly whole. After family tension boils over, she makes a decision that irreparably alters everything around her.
The film uses an interesting framing device of sorts, in the way Holly’s literary interests structure her personal story. Her interest in the tragic is particularly compelling, given the trajectory of the plot and its conclusion. More than that, her being a woman relegated to the role of caretaker, robbed of all identity and personality, is shown to be the great tragedy of not just her life, and not solely the film, but of our society.
“When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.
Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:
so bitter— death is hardly more severe!”
(Inferno I. 1-12)
Literature plays a big, albeit indirect role in the screenplay. Early on we get the setup of Holly teaching Dante Alighieri to students. The quote above fits well with Holly’s life, as she’s gradually approaching her forties and starting to find her life becoming stagnant. Her later spiral into madness feels a lot like descending into the circles of Dante’s Inferno.
Italo Calvino’s The Nonexistent Knight, on her shelf at home, mirrors her as the nonexistent woman / mother. The medieval knight of Calvino’s tale portrays all the characteristics of a chivalrous, moral knight but appears as an empty suit of armour. Not unlike Holly as a good, loyal, and caring woman, who may as well be an empty suit of skin and bones. “Look at me!” she screams in one scene, literally calling out to figuratively be seen, a desperate plea to the world, to her husband, her family, her sister— everyone— begging them to acknowledge her agency and very existence.
Deep sadness comes out of the treatment Holly receives from her shitty husband and awful sons. Rob’s late nights at the store eventually prove to be devious. The way he gives more attention to his female employees and co-workers than he does to his wife is an early indicator prior to us recognising his infidelity that he’s a bad husband.
There are a couple stinging moments with the kids, too. Her boys only come to her when they need something. She’s a cook and cleaner to them, not someone they love. The boys don’t thank her for anything, they don’t hug or kiss her, and generally offer no consideration of her feelings. Also illustrates the way bad men pass down bad values to their kids, specifically the boys.
There’s also the values of society on display in the screenplay. Kapsalis makes a point, during several scenes, to focus in on the general attitudes towards mental health. Kids at school talk about another kid as “psycho” and say he ought to “up his meds.” Not overly surprising from young people. Most evident is the gaslighting Rob engages in to thwart his wife’s attempts to suss out his infidelity, yelling: “Get your goddamn meds checked.” Rather than people being taken seriously with their struggles, they’re treated like patients in a psychiatric ward, dismissed, and told they’re crazy. Holly’s path is determined partly by an inability to be taken seriously re: her mental health, and likewise partly when it comes to how her status as a wife / mother.
Kapsalis makes use of interesting symbols throughout The Swerve. The wound on Holly’s finger is a constant reminder of the psychic wear and tear she’s experiencing, expressing itself physically in the body. It’s the wound that refuses to heal, spontaneously bleeding and never closing. The physical environment around Holly also shows signs of deterioration, such as the image above depicting when she checks her teacher’s mailbox at school and the nearby wall is split— reminiscent of Repulsion and the psychological cracks in the apartment of Catherine Deneuve’s protagonist. And the mouse Holly can’t seem to catch is a great symbol, representative of the thing she can’t quite catch psychologically, despite seeing it fully in the open. The mouse is the unknowable, slipping past her every time.
AHEAD ARE HUGE SPOILERS
RE: THE FILM’S CLIMAX
Perhaps the best thing Kapsalis does is use a tragic arc for Holly’s character, similar to the characters contained in the various tragedies the school teacher keeps on her bookshelf. In true literary fashion, Holly plans for pie— an already painful symbol from her childhood, after the story her sister tells about Nana’s pie and “Little Holly Hippo“— to be the thing that kills her. A genuinely fantastic subversion of the typical apple pie image that comes along with a patriarchal view of women as caretakers. In this light, Holly subverts caretaker into undertaker, making clear how patriarchy’s concept of motherhood equals spiritual death for women. Like a Greek tragedy, her plan happens completely different than intended, in the most horrific of ways.
Azura Skye is the centrepiece— The Swerve would only be a good story to read if it weren’t for her utterly engaging, devastating, and unnerving performance as Holly. The themes are pressingly relevant, in a day and age where men are slowly starting to wake up to the realities women face in their daily lives, as women, as mothers, and so on. Despite Kapsalis both writing and directing the film doesn’t result in any dissonance re: gender. His screenplay remains fully aware this is a woman’s story.
At the heart of The Swerve are moral dilemmas, like the ones Holly talks about with her class. Some will no doubt judge her actions while the plot unfolds. Just remember not everybody who does bad things does them out of badness. Sometimes people are forced into a place where the only thing they have left is to rebel against the norm, society, and even their own morals. Holly finds herself in that place, and the judgements of viewers are the least of the torments with which she’s left to suffer.