“PROXY” (TIFF Movie Review)
Ready-to-pop pregnant Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen, pictured above) is walking home from an obstetrician’s appointment when she’s brutally attacked in the street by a hooded stranger. It is a harsh and surprisingly graphic opening—one likely to have some movie patrons running for the door—but marks only the beginning of the pitch-black psychosexual terrain to be explored in Zack Parker’s fourth feature, PROXY.
The hospital counselors urge the seemingly friendless would-be mother to attend grief counselling. There, her slouching, kicked-dog cautiousness is enlivened by a random conversation with fellow-griever Melanie Michaels (Alexa Havins), whose demeanor is comparatively perky given the context. “I guess most of my damage is on the inside,” she explains. Melanie is a natural nurturer and over a few confidence-sharing coffee dates, Esther starts to morbidly fixate on her. But when she spies Melanie from afar in a retail shop acting out a bizarre scenario, the revelation will give the damaged Esther a new, dark purpose.
There are two main themes running through Zack Parker’s PROXY: the first, as the title suggests, is that of substitution—unable to ‘fix’ things with those at the root of our emotional despair, we try to replay events with the use of a substitute, often unconsciously. The notion of substitution and doubling is one of the most well-worn in the horror genre’s back-catalogue of early 20th century psychoanalytical obsessions, and Parker makes excellent use of it here with so many criss-crossing ‘proxies’ that they all begin to knock each other down like blood-spattered dominos.
The second is that of the machinations and social politics of grief. Films as varied as DON’T LOOK NOW, ANTICHRIST and Fabrice du Welz’ somewhat overlooked VINYAN all explore this particular brand of mind-fuck, an intensely personal experience, yet one that society inadvertently regulates through norms and rituals meant to separate “healthy” grieving from its destructive counterpart. But rituals, with their superficial simulability, can provide solace. Take the ritual of grief counsel: participants sit in a circle, like kindergartners on their first day of school, each taking turns telling the who/what/where/why of what led them to this vulnerable moment, a ‘recess’ is announced where small talk is made over weak, powder-whitened coffee and crumbly biscuits, emotions are validated and wills reinforced.
Characters navigate through loss in different ways.“How should the father of a dead son look?” asks Melanie’s husband Patrick (the always astounding Joe Swanberg, who we recently interviewed here), shrivelled and pale in the wake of his son’s death; Patrick doesn’t know it, but he’s in the center of a nasty, impenetrable web of intersecting neuroses. The film’s trio of messed-up women—Melanie, Esther and Esther’s bullying ignoramus of a girlfriend (the visually stunning Kristina Klebe, stuck playing the film’s only lamentable stereotype)—all play-act in roles that dangerously confuse the boundaries between different kinds of love.
Director and co-writer Zack Parker (SCALENE, 2011) is no stranger to complex emotional mysteries. Here the netting of the plot is punctuated by shocking bursts of violence, including a slow-motion show-stopping centerpiece filled with enough blood-spray and Donaggio-esque swelling strings to warrant a gleeful applause.
The intense experiential space of the film is one that can be compared to headtrips like Altman’s THREE WOMEN or even Drew Tobia’s non-genre effort SEE YOU NEXT TUESDAY, but the execution and the subjects it dares to expose make it wholly unique. The film keeps the audience guessing, and even though each revelation is deftly supported by calculated clues, the suspense remains terrifically palpable throughout, with any kind of pat psychological précis avoided in favour of a deliberately sustained ambiguity.