United States. Directed by Zack Parker, 2013. Starring Alexia Rasmussen, Alexa Havins, Kristina Klebe. 122 minutes.
A hooded attacker knocks heavily pregnant Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen) unconscious as she walks home from her OB/GYN’s office, and strikes her repeatedly in the stomach with a brick. Her baby dies by the time the ER doctors perform an emergency C-section.
At a support group meeting for grieving parents, Esther meets Melanie Michaels (Alexa Havins). Melanie shows her a picture of her husband and young son, killed by a drunk driver. The two become fast friends.
Some time later, Esther sees Melanie at a department store, claiming her son Peyton is missing. While security searches the store, Melanie goes outside to take another look for Peyton–who was never missing at all, merely waiting patiently in his mother’s car the entire time. Unnoticed by Melanie, Esther recognizes Peyton as the boy from the family picture.
This touches off a series of events that brings to light a web of lies that also involves Melanie’s husband (Joe Swanberg) and Esther’s lover (Kristina Klebe). Everyone has secrets they would prefer remain hidden, and blood will be spilled before all is revealed.
It ain’t easy being a hobbyist film critic. More than once I’ve walked away from a film, asking myself, How the Hell am I going to explain this to people? Sometimes it’s hard to describe a film without entering spoiler territory. (I had a friend once who recommended Donnie Darko to someone who’d never heard of it, explicitly telling her what it’s really about. I have rarely in my life wanted to punch someone so badly.) Other times a movie is just so weird that there’s no way to describe it without sounding insane.
Then there’s Proxy. If someone were to ask me “What is Proxy about?” I would probably curl up into a ball and whimper. What Proxy is about changes roughly every fifteen to twenty minutes. Some movies like to pull the rug out from under the audience. Proxy pulls out the rug, then it pulls out the floor, then the rest of the building. I get the feeling that if co-writer/director Zack Parker and co-writer Kevin Donner could pull the entire planet out from under you, they would.
This is an exceedingly difficult trick to pull off and it’s to Parker’s credit that it mostly works. More than once the film feels like it’s gone a twist too far. Forcing the audience to drastically rethink its attitude towards a character can be an effective plot point, but ask too often and you run the risk of the audience not caring who the characters really are. Proxy only approaches that point with one subplot, involving Joe Swanberg’s character. Red herrings can be useful, but this one takes up too much space in a film that’s on the longish side to begin with.
Other than that, the subplots lock together tightly and Parker milks every drop of suspense he can out of every scene–in fact, while it’s usually classed as a horror movie, Proxy is really more of a Hitchcockian suspense thriller, just gorier. (Which doesn’t mean that no horror can be found here: the attack on Esther was undoubtedly difficult to watch.) The pacing works but could probably use some tightening up, particularly the midsection, which tends to drag a little.
But it’s not the kind of film that could succeed solely based on its script or its direction. It requires strong performances to make it work, and strong performances are what it has. Esther is perhaps the most difficult character to get a handle on, because she’s essentially blank and shallow; Rasmussen brings enough dimension to the character to keep her from being dull. Havins commands all your attention whenever she’s on-screen. Swanberg delivers top-notch unhinged. Klebe, having the least-defined of the main roles, manages to transcend the Bull-Dyke clichés the script burdens her with.
Proxy is a fine effort that occasionally doesn’t work as well as it should. It could definitely do with some tightening up. But I enjoyed it, and I admire the filmmakers for thinking big and ambitiously.