[Cinepocalypse 2019 World Premiere Review] The Swerve is a tense and heavy drama

I was not prepared for what The Swerve was serving. I wasn’t ready for the steadily increasing tension or the way what seems like a standard familial drama began to twist in truly disturbing ways. We’ve seen a specific kind of horror renaissance recently, particularly with how other genres are taking advantage of horror trappings and applying them to great effect. And while The Swerve doesn’t seem like a horror film, I would argue that it fits squarely in the genre and is a tremendous slowburn exercise in grueling tension and horror. Don’t miss this movie.

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Bloody hands grip a steering wheel tightly as a hauntingly beautiful Gothic-sounding choir swells in the background. The hands belong to Holly (Azure Skye), a woman who seems teetering on the edge. And while those hands are seeping blood through the bandages, they will be covered in sweat, tears, vomit, semen and worse by the end of this tension-filled drama. As the choir swells, Holly closes her eyes and suddenly the movie cuts to her in bed, next to her husband Rob (Bryce Pinkham), before any of the cold open happens.

But even here, she’s obviously troubled. While Rob sleeps contentedly, Holly stares at nothing, waiting like a robot for the alarm to go off. The way she lies in bed after turning off the alarm is what we would call a mood. She looks depressed even as she sweetly cajoles her husband awake. Things aren’t good in Holly’s home. Their teenage son Ben (Taen Phillips) snidely tells her he needs his “effing jersey” for a game and when she tells him not to use language, he retorts, “I didn’t say fucking.” Semantics, man. Her other son Lee (Liam Seib) is also seemingly depressed, hiding in his room. And when we finally see him, the difference between the two boys is striking. While Lee is chubby, quiet and introverted, Ben is obviously outgoing and popular. He looks like a cross between Shawn Mendes and Levi Miller, the kid from Better Watch Out. He’s the kind of jock teenager who casually cusses and calls his brother a sad sack of shit.

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Another complication is that money seems to be an issue. Rob is up for a much needed promotion and Holly’s popping pills to get through the day. The narrative feels like a typical suburban (white) family drama. But the music buzzing in the background is a clue that something more nefarious is happening. The Swerve is a masterclass in the importance of music in establishing tone. It quietly flits in the background, adding tension to every day sequences of a family in disrepair. Then there’s the case of the rat that she discovers in the kitchen that they really can’t afford an exterminator to take care of.

We begin to learn more about Holly’s life and state-of-mind through these scenes. We learn she is the breadwinner, as meek as a teacher’s salary is, as her husband works at a grocery store. At an awkward dinner party with Holly’s family, we meet her sister Claudia (Ashley Bell), who has had depressive episodes in the past and seems downright manic now. At this party, we discover that the skinny and gaunt Holly used to be called “little Holly Hippo.” And while Claudia blithely recounts how Little Holly Hippo stole a pie and ate it all by herself, the look in Holly’s eye could kill. And in the otherwise quiet background, a clock just tick-tick-ticks away. Holly’s a time bomb, ready to go off.

Each of these scenes start to snap together, like a jigsaw puzzle. It both helps establish Holly’s character, but it also feels like we won’t like this picture once it’s assembled. Through it all, there’s an ever-increasing sense of malice that adds an edge to what should be ordinary events. The rat, for instance, becomes a harbinger of darker things to come as it bites Holly, leaving a bloody mark that continues to seep through the bandages she covers it with. Marital problems. Money problems. Quick flashes of the titular swerve. A lovesick high school boy. As the narrative by writer/director Dean Kapsalis starts to fall into place, piece by piece, you feel the inevitability hanging over the family like a guillotine.

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It’s all carried on the slight shoulders of Azura Skye who delivers a blisteringly raw and fearless performance. She does so much with so little, able to throw her sister a look that could cut through bone and then turn around and look like a lost waif, who just wants to melt into the arms of someone. During the day, as she’s at school Azura exudes that quiet determination and melancholy that would cause a shy boy to draw her. But at night, her gauntness and dark-circled eyes become more pronounced. She alternates between strong and frail. owerful and meek. Sexual and prudish. But what really got me choked up was when she finally lets out an anguished and terrifying scream that’s been building the entire film. That moment chilled me to my bone and broke my heart.

So while there is indeed a physical swerve that is referenced throughout the narrative, The Swerve is all about the little moments that can send a life spiraling. A boy takes interest in a married woman and kisses her. Swerve. Someone cheats. Swerve. A rat just won’t die by normal means. Swerve. A woman suddenly jerks the steering wheel of her car. Swerve.

Ultimately, life has a funny way of taking The Swerve when you least expect it.