Zack Parker's intriguing but madly uneven 'Proxy' shows grief in a new light
Proxy IFC Midnight
Director: Zack Parker
Screenplay: Zack Parker and Kevin Donner
Starring: Alexia Rasmussen, Alexa Havins, Joe Swanberg and Kristina Klebe
Not rated / 2 hours
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
Most horror movies deal with grief in one way or another, but rarely is it an end in and of itself. But that's exactly the case in Zack Parker's Proxy, a twisted but unfocused effort in which personal tragedy and anguish take center stage.
This is like a multi-pronged, darkly comic thesis film on the subject - in one corner, we have grief as fetishization; in another, it's a means for vengeance. If that's not enough, we've got grief as mere collateral damage for a whole other psychological complex. Indeed, someone better-versed in psychology than myself would have a field day with this movie, provided they can take it for the playfully cynical experiment it is.
There are four key characters in Proxy, all closely (if not consciously) connected by the same series of events, and all driven toward wildly different grieving processes.
We meet a woman named Esther (Alexia Rasmussen). Young, pretty, soft-spoken. She's eight months pregnant and on her way back home after her OB/GYN appointment. She is attacked by an anonymous hooded figure - first she's bashed across the head, and then, while she's unconscious, her assailant takes a brick and pounds repeatedly on Esther's pregnant stomach as blood seeps across the empty sidewalk. Esther recovers in a hospital nearby, but the fetus is lost. She's visited by grief counselors and doctors and law-enforcement officers - no family, no friends.
We meet another woman. Her name is Melanie (Alexa Havins) and she strikes up a conversation with Esther at a support group. Melanie tells her story - husband and child killed by a drunk driver - and kindly offers her friendship and advice. The two become friends - meeting up for coffee, visiting the park where Melanie's son Peyton used to play, talking about their problems.
Except, as it turns out, Melanie is full of it. Esther happens to see her at the mall one afternoon telling the security guard that her son is missing - and then calmly going outside to her minivan, pulling a crying Peyton (Xavier Parker) out and going back inside the mall, having miraculously "found" him. She does this all the time, manufacturing stories about her son's death or disappearance, or her husband's, or both. And yes, her husband Patrick (Joe Swanberg) is very much alive as well. We begin to wonder how many of these support groups Melanie belongs to. I am Jack's desperate need for attention.
Parker, directing from a script he co-wrote with Kevin Donner, presents this all with a deliberate Hitchcockian style. The Newton Brothers' forceful, Bernard Herrmann-esque score makes that clear enough, but the way Parker uses subjective camerawork as we see certain scenes play out from individual characters' points of view is crucial to the way the film operates.
The scene in the mall, for example - with Esther remaining completely undetected by Melanie as she makes her scene, despite being just a few yards away - is vaguely similar to the Vertigo sequence when Scottie first follows Madeleine. Much like the way Hitchcock shot that scene (with Scottie's car always following just behind hers), the scene in Proxy violates any realistic sense of spatial logic, with the watcher being in close proximity without ever being noticed. But the way these scenes function psychologically, even emotionally, is what's really important.
And just as Scottie's discoveries - and his reaction to this mysterious woman's actions - are surprising and disturbing, so, too, are Esther's. Exactly how, I can't reveal. For that matter, I can't reveal too many details in general. Parker is fond of the bait-and-switch, and one of the few he pulls off in this film is especially effective.
He does some other really nice things, too. The most important scene invovles a beautifully savage sequence of images - Hitchcock by way of von Trier - that's more lavishly macabre than anything else in the film. The slow-motion flourish kind of comes out of nowhere, but it works - it's the kind of jarring aesthetic shift that has to be deployed at the right moment, and Parker finds it.
Looking back, however, I find myself wishing the best of Proxy were more frequent, or at least more consistent. Because as impressive as some of the film is, Parker never quite figures out how to balance his characters, or the story's disparate aims. Some of his ideas either seem to be lost in the shuffle, or shoe-horned in just to provide connective tissue between more important moments.
And then there are the performances. While Rasmussen acquits herself quite well, the other three aren't always as reliable. Havins is great in some scenes and hopelessly awkward in others. Kristina Klebe, as Esther's girlfriend Anika, is kind of a badass, but she gets way too cute with her badassery, as if she's fully aware that she's the badass in a horror movie. And then there's ubiquitous indie-horror multi-hyphenate Swanberg, who has to do the heavy lifting in several key scenes and simply isn't a substantive enough actor to pull it off.
I like where Proxy is trying to go - I just wound up unconvinced of how it ultimately gets there. But of all the small-scale horror films I've seen recently, this is the kind that I'd most like to see more of - a film that plays with or subverts established cinematic language, that isn't shy about reinventing itself on the fly, and that isn't afraid to surprise an audience.