In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Of all the movies I thoroughly enjoyed last year, Proxy, an independent horror film written and directed by Zack Parker, is the one that other people seemed to enjoy the least. Professional reviews were all over the place (our own A.A. Dowd was on the fence, giving it a B-), but the folks who didn’t like it, judging from their angry comments, really didn’t like it. And of the many things they hated, one particular sequence, smack in the middle of the film, repeatedly got singled out as especially awful/ludicrous/laughable/inept/unfortunate. Since I found this same sequence rather thrilling, let’s see if I can make a case for it, setting myself the further challenge that I am only allowed to refer to Brian De Palma—the scene’s most obvious point of comparison, for good or ill—in this one sentence. (For my next trick, I will analyze the Untouchables staircase shootout without mentioning Eisenstein.)
Unfortunately, the scene in question, upon which Proxy’s bizarre narrative abruptly pivots, constitutes a major plot revelation. There’s no way around this, so if you think you might want to see the film, I’d encourage you to do so before reading any further. (It’s available on DVD/Blu-ray and can be streamed on Netflix.) For the rest, some quick context: The brunette woman in the clip is the protagonist, Esther (Alexia Rasmussen), who’s recently lost her unborn child following a vicious attack, but doesn’t seem too broken up about it. The blonde woman is Melanie (Alexa Havins), who befriended Esther at a group-therapy session for grieving parents, claiming that her husband and young son had been killed in a car accident. That’s Joe Swanberg as her husband, though, still very much alive, and her son is just fine, too. Here, at the film’s precise midpoint, Esther, having just been rejected by Melanie after revealing that she knows the truth (and attempting to kiss her), sneaks into Melanie’s house—not to take revenge, as it may seem, but to solve the underlying problem, at least as she understands it in her own utterly twisted mind.
The first interesting decision Parker makes involves the drowning of the little boy, which occurs offscreen. For one thing, drowning isn’t what we expect, given that Esther is carrying a tire iron; she’d apparently planned to bash the kid’s skull in, then improvised when she found him waiting for Mommy to give him his bath. For another, Parker doesn’t show the act itself, letting it be implied by the sound of splashing and struggling as the camera slowly pulls back down the hallway. Normally, this could be chalked up to the taboo about depicting violence to small children (and animals)—it’s such a horrific idea that asking an audience to endure it is too much. Thing is, though, Parker opens Proxy with someone repeatedly bashing Esther’s hugely pregnant belly with a brick, bludgeoning the fetus to death. That’s arguably even crueler, and yet takes place on-screen from start to finish, complete with blood seeping through her clothes and pooling on the ground between her legs. So it’s not a question of sensitivity, clearly. Rather, Parker knows what’s coming, and understands that making the little boy’s murder too graphic would diminish the intensity of Esther’s death. In other words, he’s exercising a sense of proportion—which I point out only because that’s what detractors are essentially accusing him of lacking when they complain about what follows.
Melanie then enters in the same shot, looking for her son. The absence of a cut here is a canny bit of direction, because it ensures that we know Esther is still in the bathroom when Melanie opens the door and sees the kid lying dead in the tub. Over the next few panicked seconds, as Melanie’s husband, Patrick, appears and Melanie screams for him to call an ambulance, Esther’s unseen presence—remember, she’s still holding a tire iron—dominates the scene. Which is why it’s inspired that Parker eschews a sudden reveal, simply cutting to a medium close-up of Esther, who’s standing quietly off to the side of the room. She’s not hiding; she’s just not in view if you’re focused on the lifeless form of your child. Her subsequent conversation with Melanie is likewise notable for how quietly, casually insane it is, not just in terms of what Esther is saying but in terms of Melanie’s blasé reaction. Havins provides subtle indications that Esther’s assessment of the situation isn’t completely off base (though that’s also informed by some crazy shit we’ve seen Melanie do earlier). Were the two of them alone, who knows what might happen?
They’re not alone, however, and the sound of Patrick cocking his shotgun triggers the scene’s abrupt shift into expressionistic slo-mo (and also triggers The Newton Brothers’ superb orchestral score, which lends Proxy a lush gravity that most low-budget horror movies decidedly lack). Some people have complained that Patrick showing up armed is illogical, since he never sees Esther and has no reason to believe there’s any impending danger. One can rationalize this—they are talking, after all, so maybe he hears them—but I’d rather just dismiss the incongruity as irrelevant. What matters is the Grand Guignol opera that Parker proceeds to conduct. Having ruled out a certain someone at the outset, let me instead point to the recent work of Lars Von Trier—specifically, his overtures to Antichrist and Melancholia, which similarly use extreme slow motion and outsized aestheticism, combined with classical music, to convey a mix of beauty and tragedy. This sequence isn’t as outlandishly gorgeous, but, then, it’s not an overture, either. To shift into such a heightened mode midway through an otherwise naturalistic film is a real gamble, especially when you’re killing off your protagonist, leaving viewers to wonder who the hell your movie is about.
What some find too ridiculous to stomach, I gather, is the amount of fake blood Parker uses, and the way it’s splattered into first Melanie’s and then Patrick’s face, as if shot from a fire hose. Some have even suggested that Parker intends the effect to be comical. That’s not my impression (though I understand why people might laugh—it’s certainly unexpected), but there’s no question at all that he intends it to be unrealistic. The first shot results in a spray of blood from behind Esther that bears no resemblance whatsoever to what would actually occur—the angle of the blood’s trajectory isn’t even correct. And the fake blood is roughly 10 times thicker than real blood. Everything has been carefully designed to create a specific… I was going to say “mood,” but that’s not quite right. In essence, Parker is rupturing his own movie here—like Psycho, it will now effectively recommence, shifting focus to characters who had seemed to be playing supporting roles—and the almost surreal quality of Esther’s death scene is meant to reflect and embody that rupture. That’s why the sequence concludes with Melanie looking into the lens over the course of three shots separated in time by dissolves, followed by a sudden cut to a close-up. It’s a bravura passing of the baton, neatly cleaving the movie into two equal halves. And it signals a director to watch.