Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Frightfest Glasgow 2014: Proxy - Review

Note: Much to my regret I didn't see this film at Frightfest Glasgow, but as it played there this review is part of our coverage.

Dir: Zack Parker
Proxy presents a challenge to a critic.  There is a lot here, a lot that I want to talk about, but the nature of the film is such that if I tell you too much I'm concerned that you won't have the same experience with it that I did, and I want you to have that experience.

A good place to start any film review is, perhaps, with the first words that come to mind when you think back on the film you're writing about.  In the case of Proxy those words are 'Oh...Fuck'.  It seemed that every twenty minutes or so during the film's two hour running time I was saying those words, and they have come to essentially define my reaction to it.  The first of these 'Oh...Fuck' moments comes right at the beginning of the film, as heavily pregnant Esther (Alexia Rasmussen), leaving her latest doctor's appointment, is grabbed from behind, dragged into an alley and beaten by an assailant, who then takes a brick and beats her around the bump, killing the baby.  It's here that it becomes clear that Proxy is, at times, a horror film of an especially confrontational nature.

From there the film evolves, changing tone and focus several times, but never far from another moment that has that sort of impact, if not always in the same visceral way.  The other event (that I can talk about) comes when Esther goes to a support group for bereaved mothers.  There she meets Melanie (Alexa Havins) and the two hit it off.  One day, after Melanie fails to attend the group, Esther sees her in a department store, and also sees something that convinces her that Melanie is more like her than she had initially expected.

Perhaps what is most intriguing and impressive about Proxy is how co-writer and director Zack Parker juggles tone.  At times it appears to be a sad and reflective drama dealing with the loss of a child, but soon elements of visceral violence and disturbed psychology begin to intrude from all sides, also including Esther's girlfriend Anika (Kristina Klebe in a brittle and sometimes scary performance) and Melanie's husband Patrick (Joe Swanberg).  The quietness of the tone of most of the film allows the shock moments to be much more impactful than they are in more gore soaked films, which are often simply numbing, but when those moments come they seem to flow naturally out of the narrative, not to simply be inserted for shock value.

The performances help immensely with this balancing act.  It would be unfair to talk about exactly how Esther and Melanie are similar and exactly how each of them is hiding something, be it a motivation, a lie or a personality trait, truly dark.  This makes it difficult to tell you exactly how good Alexia Rasmussen and Alexa Havins are.  Havins has, perhaps, the tougher role; she is quite outwardly simple for most of the film's running time.  Her motivations, even after the first revelation about her, aren't hard to read so much as they are hard to empathise with.  It is towards the end that Melanie really begins to shift and there begin to be profound questions about whether she has been shaped by events or there has always been something off about her.  This is one of several things about Proxy that will likely reward a second viewing.  

While Havins has the harder role Alexia Rasmussen certainly has the showier one, but she plays it in a very down to earth way which accentuates the disturbing side of her character.  There is something distant about her from the beginning but when it becomes clear that this is a state not brought about by her trauma but more like a default for Esther your sadness and sympathy for her turns to something much more unnerving.  Rasmussen is brilliant here; I've not been so struck by a horror film performance since AnnaLynne McCord's in Excision (which Proxy shares more than a little with, in impact more than in execution).

It's also worth mentioning Joe Swanberg, he may be better known as a writer and director, but he's proven to be a capable actor both in his own films and for other directors.  Here he's probably the closest thing we have to an audience identification point and he's excellent, believable as a man being slowly driven to breaking point by loss and by his wife.  There is, however, one moment I'd have liked Parker to explore further with his character... what exactly is going on in that basement.

I've not seen any of Zack Parker's three previous features, but you can bet that I will be as soon as I can.  For me, Proxy is best in its least stylised moments; the department store scene, for instance, needs no fancy camera tricks or score to unnerve us.  When he does go more stylised Parker's images are always effective but sometimes (as in a mid-movie home invasion) it's just a bit much.  The super slow motion in that scene is reminiscent of Thriller: A Cruel Picture in both its pace and the fact that it is effective for a time, but after several minutes it feels a little self-indulgent and the point seems overstated.  It would, perhaps, work better without the slathered on score that is a problem at a few points, but ultimately the moment goes from being an effective shock to an indulgent art piece that seems dropped into the middle of the film.  However, the rest of the time Parker keeps the direction stylish and taut, sometimes breaking that tension effectively, as in a funny cutaway in the film's closing moments and he draws strong performances from all of his key cast.

As I said, I wish I could get into specifics with this film as there is much to discuss and I would love to have that conversation with some horror fans.  My recommendation is this: see Proxy.  See it ASAP and see it with an audience, then come and discuss it in the comments under this review.

Sam's Score:

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