Written by: Kevin Donner, Zack Parker
Directed by: Zack Parker
Starring: Alexia Rasmussen, Alexa Havins, and Kristina Klebe
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Motherhood can be its own affliction.
Expectations arenít always crucial (nor are they even that valid or fair in most cases), but Proxy is the sort of film that preys on them: so much about it suggests a riff on Rosemaryís Baby (and it hardly shies away from that perception, what with a character surnamed Woodhouse), yet thatís only a launching point for a slippery, labyrinthine exploration of total insanity. This is the sort of mystery movie where the journey is every bit as disorienting as the destination precisely because youíre never quite sure what itís hiding. By the time itís gone from point A to point Z, itís done so in a wild, circuitous manner of a lurid, De Palma-esque thriller, an approach that feels like it should be enjoyable but stands in stark contrast to its disturbing subject matter.
Consider the setup: in the ninth month of her pregnancy, Esther Woodhouse (Alexis Rasmussen) leaves an otherwise uneventful check-up, only to be ruthlessly beaten in the street. The next scene finds doctors ripping her unborn child from her room, and the next one features the even grimmer realization that the baby was dead on arrival. All this within the first ten minutes! Obviously, Proxy is not for the faint of heart, nor is it a barrel of laughs. And yet, its actual story begins to unfold somewhat playfully in the aftermath of this trauma, when Esther meets fellow griever Melanie (Alexa Havins) at a support group. As the two begin to bond over their shared pain, Esther begins to suspect her new acquaintance isnít what she seems.
Her suspicion is the first of many ďand thenÖĒ moments in Proxy, which operates with a sinewy, side-winding verve that allows it to continuously skirt around expected plot points. Its script is something of Russian Nesting doll: just when one development arises, another creeps out from within it. Eventually, you feel as if youíve burrowed into a rabbit hole completely beset by the madness engendered by those who canít cope with tragedyóand those who actively court it. Without any set protagonist to follow (I think Hitchcock would especially enjoy the mid-movie misdirection in this respect), the film is able to hover around a fascinating set of broken characters, including Estherís lover (Kristina Klebe) and Melanieís husband (Joe Swanberg). To give you an idea of just how fucked-up this cast is, just know that Swanberg seems to be the most well-adjusted, and even he fantasizes about torturing someone in his basement to assuage his guilt.
Or is he just fantasizing? Despite the extremely visceral, squirm-inducing opening (and a few more calculated bursts of violence), Proxy is also quite psychological at times, particularly in the way it toys with the audienceís sympathy and expectations. Just when you assume itís setting you up for a typical film about the fractured psych of a woman enduring the loss of a child, it pulls the rug out from under this presumption in an almost glib manner before moving on and doing the same for other characters. Rasmussen asserts herself at the center with typically sullen portrayal that becomes more sinister, and those surrounding her follow suit by constantly peeling layers off of the facades theyíve constructed. The best twist here is arguably the revelation that none of these characters are sympathetic but merely broken beyond all repair.
The fallout is equal measures melodramatic and horrifying. While Zack Parkerís direction initially relies on an unsettling restraint and a brooding atmosphere (heightened brilliantly by The Newton Brothersí high-strung, operatic score), he goes big and broad with a couple of sequences that tap into the underlying absurdity of it all (well, as much absurdity thatís possible considering the material). Towards the end, he almost loses his grip: where just about everyone in the film is subtly believable on some level, Klebe borders on becoming a scenery-chewing force of nature that threatens to push the film over into complete soap opera territory. To be fair, sheís not operating alone by the end of the film, as Proxy takes some hard left turns, frenetically piling up twists and turns all the way up until its final moments.
Itís at that point that you realize Parkerís saved the best joke for last: after two hours of leading audiences into a maze, he practically strands them there, leaving them only with ambiguity. Such a final note is tricky but fitting, as Proxy remains elusive until the endóI canít quite decide if itís weirdly enjoyable junk or if itís somehow a high-minded psychological thriller (with so many recurring motifs of loss and madness intertwining and intersecting, itís tough to dismiss its thematic ambition).
After touring the festival circuit for nearly a year, Proxy has been pinned down on Blu-ray by IFC Midnight, whose disc features a pristine presentation and over forty-five minutes of special features. Separate interviews with Swanberg, Klebe, Rasmussen, and Havins allow each participant to discuss their involvement, while separate featurettes take a look at the visual effects and other behind-the-scenes workings. A trailer rounds out the supplements for a film thatís quite indelible if nothing else. Proxy is the sort of film thatís too grim to truly enjoyable, yet it sometimes feels so silly that youíre not quite sure how seriously youíre supposed to take it; either way, Iím not likely to forget it any time soon. Buy it!
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