Any great thriller earns that definition by keeping its audience off-balance. We crave control in the real world, but not when it comes to the movies – if we have a grasp of what’s to come, we chide a film or filmmaker for being too predictable. Zack Parker has a firm understanding of this basic tenet, and successfully crafts narratives that keep his audience wondering what exactly will emerge with each fresh fade-in. With the provocative Scalene, Parker slyly revealed details in reverse, and then flipped the timeline into overdrive. With his latest, Proxy, we’re never quite sure of characters’ motives or levels of sanity. And that’s exactly what I love about the film.
Proxy does have its flaws, but the orchestration of shocks, violence, and off-kilter story development is, yes, unpredictable enough to bring the film far above standard scare fare. It’s chilling to not know what’s around each corner – sometimes literally – and Parker is able to sustain that feeling throughout Proxy. He does it with a bit of noir, a jolt of conventional horror, a dose of revenge tale and the structure of a pinpoint-plotted mystery.
The story begins with Esther (Alexia Rasmussen), a very pregnant woman undergoing a standard ultrasound, looking about as stone-faced and nervous as an expectant mom could be. Moments later, with the opening credit sequence barely complete, she’s beaten on the street in an act of violence that’s swift and sharply horrific.
As Parker and Rasmussen slowly build what appears to be a character study about mourning, things start to get a little complicated and more than a little confusing. What did we really see on that street corner? And what does Esther see when spying on a new friend (Alexa Havins) from her grief group? As we begin to question the potential sociopathic levels of just about all the primary characters, Proxy is at its smartest and juiciest.
The follow-through takes the tale into unexpected places, with mixed results. Parker attempts a couple of strong visual statements, in one scene gushing excessive, projectile streams of blood into a character’s face in a slow motion move that’s unapologetically glacial in tempo. It’s an artsy attention-getter that feels out of place (even a little slapstick). But there’s guts in the effort (no pun intended) and a confidence that rings true elsewhere in the film.
Speaking of confidence, the prolific, assured indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg appears in a pivotal role in the second half of Proxy – giving Parker his most recognized name in the cast, but also his most tonally off-key performance. Swanberg has the right idea, keeping his character’s emotions brewing just behind his eyes, but the intensity comes off as too intentional, a little too theatrical. As an actor, Swanberg excels at the style he’s most adept at directing: raw, slightly jagged conversations inspired by improv. Proxy asks much more of him.
But Swanberg and the rest of the cast keep it tense. And Parker keeps it simmering and dark, even as he puts nearly all the action in comfortable, warmly lit settings, a fine contradiction to the terror taking place within. It’s not often that a two-hour film can keep you guessing without cheap tricks or drawn-out red herrings. But Proxy does.