Studio: IFC Midnight
Director: Zack Parker
Writer: Kevin Donner, Zack Parker
Producer: Zack Parker, Faust Checho
Stars: Alexia Rasmussen, Alexa Havins, Kristina Klebe, Joe Swanberg
The fractured fantasies of two delusional mothers collide when their lies are exposed and their partners unravel the mystery.
Munchausen syndrome is the mental disorder wherein a person fabricates some sort of fictitious malady purposefully to attract “poor you” pity. Munchausen syndrome by proxy then takes the concept one step further when a person instead gives the invented ailment to someone in his/her care, such as a mother searching for sob story sympathy over the hardships of raising an afflicted child. Director Zack Parker’s film “Proxy” extends that string by still another bead with its twofold tale of what happens when one young woman takes it upon herself to turn hers and another mother’s mutual Munchausen fantasy into a terrifying reality.
Eight months pregnant, everyday Midwestern girl Esther loses her baby following a horrific mugging that sees a brick repeatedly pummeled into the bulge of her stomach. At a group therapy session for grieving mothers, Esther meets Melanie, who heartbreakingly tells a sorrowful story of losing both a husband and a son to a drunk driver. It turns out that neither one of these ladies is disclosing the total truth about the tragedies bringing them together. Once the deceit is exposed, both women dive deeper into their derangement until things take a suddenly fatalistic turn.
Hour one concludes as an almost completely self-contained story. In hour two, Esther and Melanie’s significant others see their characters rise in prominence as Melanie swings the spotlight from Esther onto herself (which is fitting considering where the script goes from here). Esther’s girlfriend Anika and Melanie’s husband Patrick become further embroiled both wittingly and unwittingly in their partner’s schemes until all worlds collide in a cards-on-the-table conclusion.
“Proxy” qualifies as mumblegore, mumblehorror, or however you want to label the tone encompassed by the idea those terms represent, and not just because “mumble” subgenre patron saint Joe Swanberg plays a supporting role. “Proxy” carries the characteristic mumblecore sensibilities of naturalistic behavior, dialogue, and a cinematic style retaining an indie-infused casualness that reserves the right to be occasionally indulgent artistically. That distinction destines the film to divide those who respond to its personalized vision of introspective psychosis from those who do not.
Unmindful of a runtime routinely accruing minutes of long scenes focused on long faces, Parker allows his actors and their scenes free reign to breathe as much as they want. Yet with every character mired so soundly in voiceless ennui, the lungs of “Proxy” don’t have enough breadth to fully expand past a narrowly pointed character study. The DNA of the screenplay requires solemn figures to mope stone-faced and to keep their thoughts swirling inside while staring through vacant or tear-welling eyes. Unfortunately, that does not equate to gripping drama when their inaction is so pronounced and so prolonged.
The intriguing psychological portrait painted by “Proxy” is of two women only subtly disengaged from reality on the exterior, yet completely unhinged on their interiors. This isn’t the clear-cut “Fatal Attraction” breed of crazed female stalker, but a variety equally deadly due to desperation and delusion, perhaps more so because of their “fit right in” demeanors of seeming normality. Though as a film, “Proxy” never quite takes the viewer beyond a passive role as an only mildly interested observer of what makes such cracked minds tick.
Infrequent music makes gaps of extended silence seem even emptier. Long shots, particularly of Esther, illustrate isolation without establishing an intimacy to hook the audience personally into the world of these warped women. The emotional distance is there, although it makes the story feel as far away as the characters are physically depicted. Slow-motion water droplets and operatic blood sprays then stick out so much against the intentional average-ness of everything else that “Proxy” teeters into unintentionally silly satire, especially during a final segment featuring a fake newscast so out of step that it nearly morphs into a cartoon.
“Proxy” pricks at the periphery of provocative subject matter, even managing to burst a few of those bubbles. But its arthouse indie shine goes from working for to working against when the film lets every thread wander as far as it wishes for as long as desired. Misplaced subplots involving Swanberg’s revenge fantasy and Kristina Klebe’s protracted investigation into the midpoint’s aftermath particularly belabor the stride unnecessarily. “Proxy” definitely has a sound and scary idea powering the plotting at its center. It simply takes such a roundabout path of exploration that it forgets to stay at a straight-arrow angle en route.
Review Score: 65