In “Proxy,” a young pregnant woman named Esther (Alexia Rasmussem) leaves the clinic and gets knocked unconscious by an unseen assailant who pounds a brick against her victim’s abdomen; when Esther opens her eyes again, she’s in the hospital, bearing witness to her stillborn child being torn from gaping abdomen. The ensuing two hours include further child death, shootings, drownings, tattooed lesbian criminals and perverted fantasies. Director Zack Parker, working from Kevin Donner’s screenplay, never hesitates to sacrifice his characters’ happiness for a relentless grab bag of grotesque surprises. Increasingly silly even as it maintains a grave tone, “Proxy” doesn’t always work, but its commitment to unpredictable twists and pushing beyond morbid extremes bears the stamp of showmanship sorely lacking from many other examples of the genre.
Rasmussem’s petite, sullen look gives the impression of a broken young woman with nowhere to turn, but her apparent fragility represents the first of many tools the filmmakers use in service of the erratic plot. The mystery of Esther’s situation is immediately involving: Without revealing the identity of her child’s father, she’s sent home by the hospital to find that her apparent closest companion—a pet goldfish—has expired in her absence. She seems to lead a pathetic life that just became immeasurably sad, so when she signs up for a “Mothers in Mourning” support group, the decision comes as an immediate relief—but the mystery only expands from there. In the group, she encounters fellow grieving mom Melanie (Alexa Havins), whose own traumatic history of loss is called into question when Esther spies her with the child that Anika claims to have died long ago. That’s not so much of a spoiler as the first hint of a conspiratorial situation with many jagged edges, each branching out in another strange direction.
As “Proxy” slowly unveils its depraved plot, Parker enacts a jarring shift from the perspective of Esther to Melanie, finding curious parallels in their desire to enliven their surroundings through dangerous means. While Anika copes with a rocky married life with Patrick (Joe Swanberg, in a strikingly nuanced, eerily restrained performance), “Proxy” explores the claustrophobic demands of domesticity with a naughty interest in tearing it apart.
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The movie’s atmosphere takes cues from the rampant lunacy of its cast, relying on a constant sense of misdirection and a disquieting mood that dominates most scenes—even as it teeters on the edge of outright campiness. The whole ensemble looks constantly shocked, angry, and demented; the music has overwrought spookiness that constantly mocks their macabre situation. Yet there’s a definite strength to the movie’s use of its unnerving rhythms to evoke its female protagonists’ maternal paranoia. The plot’s winding pathways, which contain the ongoing implication of a bigger plot lurking just outside the frame, echo everything from Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” to Brian De Palma’s “Sisters.”
Even as “Proxy” stumbles through a series of ridiculous developments, it never loses touch with the thrill of watching it constantly evolve. Parker proves early on that there’s nowhere this story won’t go, crafting a giddy sense of dark events just around every corner. It’s all over the top, but unashamedly so, and encourages you to get swept up in the madness. As Alexis says with regard to group therapy, “hearing people tell you about the bad things that happen to them makes you feel better about your own problems.” So it goes with “Proxy,” which presents people so insanely screw up that it becomes part of the thrill ride to anticipate their demise.
“Proxy” is slovenly committed to its craziness and doesn’t always successfully land it. In one of the more excessive moments that proves Parker’s willingness to try just about anything, a grisly scene involving gunfire and ample gore unfolds rather pointlessly in slo-mo; a climactic fantasy sequence plays out with better results. But no matter how reckless the approach, “Proxy” has a liberating quality for that very same reason. It isn’t about the shocking developments around each corner so much as the energy and invention that it brings to them. It’s a genuine attempt to pierce through the noise of sameness afflicting so many unimaginative thrillers, reflecting the desperate need to do something different or suffer the consequence. “Proxy,” which luxuriates in its messy, absurdist plot, does both.
Criticwire Grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? IFC’s midnight label releases “Proxy” in New York this Friday as well as on VOD platforms ahead of a nationwide expansion. Though its theatrical prospects are limited, the genre hook should yield respectable if not exemplary returns in ancillary markets.