Ambitious narrative gambits such as the ones Zack Parker’s Proxy routinely employs up until about the halfway mark are difficult to sustain. Everyone wants to buck screenwriting conventions in their thriller and achieve a truly unpredictable plot, but what to put in their place? Proxy arrives at a conclusion that’s less than the sum of its impressive parts, but perhaps because the script by Parker and co-writer Kevin Donner unfolds in such a cannily elusive manner, the eventual destination hardly detracts from the enjoyment.
What Parker is interested in relies not only on the script, but also on the remote performance of his lead, Alexia Rasmussen. She plays an expecting mother who loses her child in an inciting incident that is startling in its prolonged brutality, announcing from the outset that the film will not be adhering to boundaries of either writerly convention or simple good taste. Rasmussen’s Esther seems to react slowly to the trauma of her miscarriage, maybe a common experience, yet the opening shots signal something askew in her state of mind. Listening to her OB/GYN narrate an ultrasound, Esther’s thoughts are elsewhere; Parker frames her straight upward gaze and the blue-white-flecked field of her vision through the skylight in a sequence of flat shot-reverse-shots.
Proxy is a story of aberrant mental conditions and women who do not react as expected to life events. If the motivations of its characters are obscured from scene to scene for the purpose of preserving suspense, the whole plot seems driven by a central idea held over from Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin: the notion that a mother may not form any attachment to her child. Parker’s take on the idea is less to tell another story of the bad seed and more of what the disenchanted parent might realize about her own wants and desires in the wake of losing a child—or perhaps bearing an unwanted one.
If the subdued and artificial mannerisms of Rasmussen and the supporting cast don’t signal to viewers from the outset that Parker has little interest in analyzing actual human behavior, subsequent scenes where Esther visits a support group for grieving mothers should as well. So often, when an opportunity for screenwriters to take jabs at self-help culture or the religious roots of such groups , Proxy quickly does away with the group to focus in on the emerging relationship between Esther and Melanie (Alexa Havins), an attractive, put-together blonde who seems a little more in touch with her feelings about her child’s abduction, and sensitive to Esther’s need for individual attention.
What follows is disorienting, not just because of the turns of the plot, but because Esther’s silent, watchful demeanor and the script’s disregard for the usual solutions like a voiceover, internal monologue, or explanatory conversations with a secondary character leave viewers to both puzzle through events at the same time as Esther, and try to parse her thought process as well. How revealing this film is about the thriller genre that all it takes is a silent, isolated protagonist and dutifully narrow focus to give the whole affair an alien atmosphere, unlike any genre film this side of Brian De Palma’s work.
Disappointingly, Rasmussen’s energizingly distant take on her character isn’t allowed to sustain the film on its own, eventually making room for Joe Swanberg’s Patrick, an emotional casualty of the conflict between the film’s mothers. Swanberg has given the occasional what-the-doctor-ordered performance in comic roles (cf. his supporting turn in You’re Next), but stacks up miserably against these women as a dramatic actor. Parker deserves applause for not surrendering completely to black comedy as Swanberg fumbles through a nightmarish scenario, but this alternative seems hardly preferable.
It’s very hard to talk about Proxy without talking about how hard it is to talk about Proxy, so a note on spoilers: Every few months it seems that an internet outlet or prominent critic who supposedly ought to know better finds themselves awash in lewd comments or subtweets as a consequence of revealing one too many plot details in their review of a major film, usually a Marvel release or other placeholding blockbuster. Most often those barking up the spoiler tree seem convinced that they now know too much to enjoy the film, whether they brought it on themselves by reading reviews or not, and the critic should be taken out behind the shed where all last year’s clickbait controversies are stored.
Since the thrills of Proxy primarily stem from its unique approach to plot and to rationing out exposition, this review has taken care to preserve the experience of watching the film and only knowing what Parker and Donner want you to know at the pace they want you to know it. But what gets left out of discussions about spoilers—either because the priorities of mainstream film culture have gotten so off-track or because plot is still the first and last word of most reviews—is whether one can be equally deprived of enjoyment about images, camera movements, or the sensation of seeing a brilliant composition sharpen in clarity as the direction holds for one beat, then another, and another, and all the while the image takes its hold on you. These are the sorts of pleasures that Proxy provides with an uncommon generosity; the sort that makes one feel spoiled.
Proxy’s home release, courtesy of IFC Midnight, contains a swath of behind-the-scenes featurettes and interviews with the cast and crew, all of whom seem equally eager to discuss the project and confounded about where to start.