There’s something deeply mysterious to some about pregnancy. It’s a beautiful, important, wholly miraculous event that still carries with it an element of the unknown. And that element, that nagging itch at the back of every parent or would-be parent’s mind, is the kind of thing that is ripe for cinematic exploration. Countless horror movies have played up the fears, both psychological and physiological, that go into pregnancy and the best (“Rosemary’s Baby,” “Inside,” the original “Alien“) find a way to acknowledge the process’ specialness while also acknowledging the fear of the unknown. What’s interesting about “Proxy” is that it plays with all of the ephemera associated with pregnancy – the way that a person’s psychology can warp around it – but too often gets bogged down in B-movie clichés and an unnecessarily convoluted narrative that strives for profundity but comes across as crass and dull.
At least it starts out with a genuine shock: young mother-to-be Esther (Alexia Rasmussen) is walking home from a doctor’s visit when she’s attacked by an unknown assailant in a red hoodie (shades of Nicolas Roeg‘s brilliant “Don’t Look Now” are certainly intended but undeserved). Not only does this hooded figure knock her down but the assailant also starts to beat her pregnant belly with a large brick. The camera is unflinching; the attack continues for what seems like forever. Even though the effect is unconvincing, it still produces a guttural queasiness.
Afterwards, Esther is in shock, and begins to go to counseling for the trauma. What’s especially shocking is that the unknown hooded figure who attacked her is actually her girlfriend Anika (Kristina Klebe), acting on orders from Esther. Clearly Esther is psychologically unwell, but there’s not enough time given to her mental sate. Instead, it’s a very breezy, pop psychology look at postpartum depression and the idea of an unwanted pregnancy getting taken care of in the most desperate way possible. (There’s no real discussion of why she just didn’t get an abortion way earlier, or even who the father was). Instead of dwelling on these issues, it shuffles Esther into a “Fatal Attraction“-ish relationship with another woman from her support group, Melanie (Alexa Havins).
Melanie has had a similar tragedy befall her, but now she’s better–she’s got a loving husband (Joe Swanberg) and an adorable young son with yarn-colored hair. Of course, since this is a midnight movie with art house aspirations, the relationship between Melanie and Esther becomes increasingly close and unstable, especially with Anika serving as the explosive third point of this romantic triangle. At one point they have an intimate moment and Melanie says, “Oh but I’m not a lesbian,” to which Esther replies, “Me neither.” Esther is starting to crack though, and at about the movie’s midway point travels to Melanie’s house and commits a truly violent act.
Again, the movie tries to weave this dreamlike vibe, at the cost of narrative clarification. It is clearly something about how guilt and pain can be transferred, like a virus, from one person to another, after some seismic event in someone’s life. The violent attack on Esther serves to drive the story forward, leading to further violence, always radiating outwards, in cosmic waves, from pregnancy or childbirth. And this is an interesting idea, for sure, but after this horrific event at the one-hour mark, the movie is still less than halfway over. So instead of really being about any of these things, it shifts back into textbook thriller mode, and offers a bunch of unsatisfying subplots that jangle uneasily inside the movie’s larger framework.
Melanie is now presented as the main character, and survivor of this horrific event, but her sanity is called into question as well. And Anika, wracked with guilt, has a little revenge subplot where she figures out what happened to her beloved girlfriend and sets out to make things right (since we already know she is capable of great violence, especially in the name of love). There are a bunch of sequences in the second half of the movie that maybe happen but could only have transpired in the character’s warped imaginations. It’s frustrating and unsatisfying and way, way, way too long, dragging endlessly when it should have moved swiftly.
By the end of the movie’s two hour plus (!) runtime, writer/director Zack Parker seems to be saying one thing, over and over and over again: women be crazy. It’s an unhelpful and exhausting sentiment, especially when he decides to throw in some super cheesy dream sequences towards the finale (or are they..?). The idea that a pregnancy can alter a woman’s mind as much as her body is a fascinating one, and ripe for this kind of horror movie treatment, although to tackle a subject like this it takes sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and a willingness to push the audience to uncomfortable places. Instead, “Proxy” plays things relatively safe, a movie starring and about women that’s soaked through with misogyny. There are a number of gifted participants, both in front of and behind the camera, like Klebe, who starred in Rob Zombie‘s bold retelling of “Halloween,” and Swanberg, whose section of the first “V/H/S” was a delightfully subversive horror romp. You’d think that somebody, at some point, would have stopped and asked Parker what he was trying to do. Instead, the filmmaker just spins in circles, saying nothing and achieving even less. It’s a shame, too. He could have given birth to something beautiful. [D]