Starring: Azura Skye, Bryce Pinkham, Ashley Bell, and Zach Rand
Written & Directed by: Dean Kapsalis
“Is it always going to be like this?”
First-time feature director Dean Kapsalis delivers a beautifully benign slice of domestic horror in The Swerve. Anchored by the magnetically raw performance from American Horror Story and Wristcutters: A Love Story’s Azura Skye, The Swerve tells the story of Holly. Holly is a woman barely holding it together.
Trapped in a loveless marriage and beset on all fronts by anxieties, she tries to “grin and bear it” as any “good” wife would. After a particularly oppressive family night, she drives under the influence of her unnamed medications. She lashes out, swerving to discourage a pair of loudmouthed townies, causing them to crash and die. From there, Holly’s world starts to crumble further. She seeks connection, understanding, and empathy from the world around her, and regrettably finds none. Though this debut feature from acclaimed shorts director Kapsalis makes a few half-hearted choices vis-a-vie the violence of the story, The Swerve is a heartrendingly performed portrait of domestic disconnection and depression.
The film opens with a striking visual promise. Holly, played with a constant edge and boiling emotionalism by Skye, is driving her trusty family minivan through the darkened streets. Her hands are stained with blood, and her eyes seem to be looking just beyond the horizon like hollowed-out marbles. From there, writer/director Dean Kapsalis backtracks a bit. He rewinds back an unspecified amount of time and then slowly but surely builds to that garish image.
That sort of unspecified quality is a double-edged sword for this feature. On one hand, it gives the proceeding film a sort of unmoored dream-like quality that gets under your skin. Kapsalis’s naturalistic style and direction also amplify that sort of creeping unease. This allows scenes to flow into very uncomfortable territory either by lingering too long on the raw performances or the mind-numbing domesticity.
But on the other hand, it undercuts the power of some of his feints. For example, the inciting incident of the titular swerve is never FULLY made explicit (aside from a quick scene of Holly at the scene of the crime). Which the script gives itself an out with in regards to Holly’s medications, which (as said textually) causes her to sleepwalk and hallucinate. It also, unfortunately, extends a bit to the character of Holly herself. We are told that she had an eating disorder, voiced by her roustabout sister Claudia (played with just the right about of acidity by Ashley Bell), and experienced some abuse at the hands of her grandmother. Still, it is never made solid enough to really matter to what we are seeing now. It’s all just sort of vague grist for this dramatic mill.
But what is undeniably amazing is the performance of Azura Skye, who turns in hardware-worthy work here. During any given scene, Skye’s Holly is playing up to four different emotions. Sometimes she’s raw, eyes brimming with tears, but also wearing a thin facade of happiness. Other times, she is completely vacant. She takes some small bit of pleasure in finally conquering the mouse infestation that has overtaken her home. She also trying to shuffle two ungrateful and uncaring sons to and from school. It all builds to a quiet tour-de-force of a denouement. We see just how she got that blood on her hands in the opening and what she is willing to do to make her bland, philandering husband (Bryce Pinkham) “see” her.
While it could have used a bit more explosivity in parts, The Swerve is a powerfully unnerving domestic psychodrama. One that more than lives up to its name with a chilling, truly surprising third act. Graced with an immensely powerful lead performance and plaintive, pointedly “normal” writing and directing, I could see The Swerve being the low-key breakout of this year’s BHFF. Just don’t go in expecting something loud and torrid.
Until next time, festival’ers, be seeing you…