Wednesday, April 23, 2014

9 Months of Crazy: "Proxy" might overreach but still a disturbing genre-buster

Proxy (2014)
120 min., not rated (but equivalent to R).

Premiering at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, ambitious, modestly budgeted indie "Proxy" was then picked up by IFC Midnight shortly after. The film does benefit from being screened cold and going in without any prior knowledge. Even horror fans expecting an ultra-bloody pregnancy horror show, à la 2007's "Inside" and 2009's "Grace," might be in for a rude awakening from the disturbingly real opening shock. Esther (Alexia Rasmussen), an introverted, ready-to-burst young woman, receives one last ultrasound at her OB appointment in Richmond, Indiana. Once she leaves, a red hooded figure knocks Esther unconscious and proceeds to hit her pregnant belly with a brick. This could have played out in an exploitative, gratuitous manner, but writer-director Zack Parker (2012's "Scalene") makes his first sequence bluntly effective and just upsetting enough to grab our attention.

Conceived from a screenplay by Parker and co-writer Kevin Donner, "Proxy" only begins as a purposefully horrific exploration of mourning before making the elegant switch into something else, as sympathies shift and several layers of crazy are peeled back. With her memory fragmented, the numb Esther wakes up in the hospital, where her only visitors are a detective and a grief counselor. She has no friends or family, except for her pet goldfish, who's found floating at the top of the tank when Esther returns home. Directed to go to a support group for her trauma, she attends and meets Melanie Michaels (Alexa Havins), a grieving mother who welcomes Esther to the group. The two soon grab coffee and meet for a chat near a playground, Melanie sharing with Esther that she lost her young son to a drunk driver. Later, however, while Esther applies for a job at a department store, she spots Melanie from afar, frantically searching for her son. Both women's traumatic stories will be called into question.

The pass-the-baton narrative structure is riveting and the pacing is deliberate but tightly wound. As a slow-cook horror drama that keeps evolving down no easily foreseeable path, "Proxy" has no problem tearing its characters apart from their psychological insides. We know Esther is cracking, but is it from the loss of her unborn child, or was it an unwanted pregnancy all along? What kind of secret is Melanie hiding from everyone, including her own husband Patrick (Joe Swanberg)? Even the presence of Esther's angry, out-of-jail lover, Anika (Kristina Klebe), and her ulterior motives throw a wrench into the plot. At the end of the first hour, there's a significant event that plays like a climax from "Fatal Attraction." Only in "Proxy," things are just getting started, changing points of view and becoming even more strange and deeply twisted. 

The two women in "Proxy" are broken and grappling with their respective losses and skeletons, but they're both more in control than they let on. Not unlike the mousy demeanor of Angela Bettis in "May" but vaguely more normal, Alexia Rasmussen is freakily muted as Esther, emitting an off-kilter mental state without reducing the character to an overtly crazy nut. On the flip, as Melanie, Alexa Havins is at once warm, charismatic and empathetic, and then raw and fractured of her own sanity. As the volatile but devoted Anika, Kristina Klebe is fully committed in the showiest role and about as unpredictable as the story itself. If there's any stiff (next to some of the amateur extras with speaking parts), it has to be Joe Swanberg. Called on to play a grieving father, he doesn't lack naturalism, but often seems out of his emotional range.

If anything, "Proxy" surely keeps one guessing as to where it's going and hardly feels like 120 minutes. Visually, this is a polished effort with plenty of cues to Brian De Palma, especially in a bracingly operatic slow-motion sequence in a bathroom that's equally heartbreaking and horrifying. The Newton Brothers' ("Oculus") score also has an undeniable mash-up vibe of Pino Donaggio and Bernard Herrmann with increasingly daunting piano keys. The finale doesn't pack the necessary power that one has been waiting for, but it's in the nebulous and pathological human behaviornot arbitrary plot twists from out of left fieldthat makes the film such a disturbing descent into the darkness of motherhood. It can't all be rationalized in one cohesive sitting, but thankfully, filmmaker Zack Parker still knows an ambiguous gray area smeared with a little crimson is more interesting than finite black and white.

Grade: B - 

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