Audacious twists make the initially unpromising thriller “Proxy” grow more bizarre and compelling as it goes along. Skirting horror and black-comedy terrain without quite surrendering to either, the pic proves rather bracing even if it doesn’t hold up to much plot-logic scrutiny: This narrative is plausible only so long as you accept that anyone and everyone onscreen might have a homicidal maniac lurking inside them. Commencing a limited theatrical release and simultaneous VOD launch on April 18, following extensive fest travel, this accomplished guilty pleasure probably won’t achieve more than modest cult favor, but should nonetheless be a profile-raiser for director/co-scenarist Zack Parker, whose three prior features flew under the radar.
Heavily pregnant Esther (Alexia Rasmussen) seems an odd candidate for motherhood, being rather sullen, withdrawn and awkward around other people — and that’s before, when walking home from an OB-GYN appointment, she’s knocked unconscious and savagely beaten in an alley. Armed with a brick, her assailant pays particular attention to the womb area, provoking a premature stillbirth. This presumably traumatic event doesn’t appear to affect Esther as one might expect. But in simple obedience to the urgings of hospital workers concerned about her apparent lack of any friends or family (she identifies the baby’s father as “the sperm bank”), she attends a 12-step-type meeting of parents recovering from various child-related tragedies.
There, she’s aggressively befriended by Melanie (Alexa Havins), a picture-perfect blonde suburban wife and mother who says her son was kidnapped a year earlier, his fate still unknown. But a chance crossing of paths later on reveals Melanie’s circumstances aren’t what she claims. Is she some kind of morbid grief junkie, addicted to other people’s crises?
Strangely, this jarring discovery doesn’t anger or alienate Esther, but only makes her more intrigued by her new (perhaps only) “friend.” Her interest takes an unexpected turn that brings Melanie’s husband, Patrick (Joe Swanberg), into the increasingly twisted loop. Meanwhile, we’ve also met Esther’s apparent spouse, Anika (Kristina Klebe), an intimidatingly butch customer who’s been lying low for various reasons, not least of them a recent prison stint. She’s the one character among our principals whose violent sociopathy is right on the surface, not buried beneath a misleadingly “normal” or victimized front.
The developments grow more macabre, as everyone acquires their own revenge agendas and proves quite willing to transgress violently in realizing them. En route, some plot holes are left unfilled, while character backgrounding and psychological detailing are not priorities in Parker and Kevin Donner’s screenplay. Still, the diabolical reversals of fortune and the tightly controlled, cruelly dispassionate directorial tenor — striking a Hitchcockian chord, as does the Newton Brothers’ Bernard Herrmann-like orchestral score — will keep most viewers off-kilter enough that they won’t think too hard about the film’s overall credibility. That is, they will if they stick with the pic past its opening reel, which may put off many not just with its brutality against the unborn, but also the way it asks us to identify with an unappealing, disconnected, almost zombie-like protagonist. Among the film’s eventual charms, however, is its willingness to abruptly shift perspective from one character to another.
Shot, like Parker’s prior pics (“Interchange,” “Quench,” “Scarlene”) in his native Indiana, “Proxy” has few frills and doesn’t need them; stylistically, it aims to be sharp and simple as a knife. Performances are solid, with Klebe gleefully punching across a potentially offensive lesbian stereotype. One shot of lethal weapon Anika furiously doing situps, a lit cigarette dangling from her mouth, underlines that both movie and thesp have found a useful midpoint between straight-faced menace and knowing parody.