To begin a thriller with a shot of ultrasound gel dripping onto a bare, oversized stomach is to portend trouble for the life gestating inside of it. And sure enough, no more than one scene passes before the violence arrives, as Proxy’s pregnant protagonist loses her unborn child in a vicious assault. Who would commit such a heinous crime and why? For Esther (Alexia Rasmussen), such questions seem less important than the tricky matter of moving forward. Without a support system—she has no friends or family, and no ties to the sperm-donor father—the young woman drifts through her post-miscarriage life in a distant haze. It’s only when Esther begins attending meetings with other grieving mothers that she begins to regain a sense of balance, thanks largely to her budding friendship with group regular Melanie (Alexa Havins). Neither woman, however, is quite what they claim to be—a fact that dawns slowly on each (and the viewer), and shapes the shocking events that follow.
Saying much more would be unfair, as Proxy’s greatest attribute is its deliberate dismantling of the audience’s assumptions. Writer-director Zack Parker has made a genre whatsit whose central mystery lies in the stealth motivations of its characters. Rasmussen, who exhibits some of the eccentric vulnerability of May’s Angela Bettis, is terrific in a tonally tricky role: She inspires sympathy but not empathy, drawing us into her emotional sphere even as she conceals the full complexity of the heroine’s feelings. Parker, for his part, creates an atmosphere of vague unease, suggesting that there’s something amiss about these events long before his script reveals the source of that tension. Bursts of visual inspiration transcend the occasional flatness of the digital imagery, as when the filmmaker expresses one character’s sudden pangs of infatuation through a creeping push into close-up. Parker owes a considerable debt to his composers, the Newton Brothers, whose sinister swell of strings provide perfect accompaniment, especially during a striking scene of grisly, slow-motion carnage.
Proxy radically redefines its trajectory more than once, swapping perspectives at a pivotal moment and keeping the audience guessing throughout. Yet as with too many movies that carefully withhold information, it also can’t help but disappoint once the full picture comes into focus. Part of the problem is the casting: While both Rasmussen and Havins are excellent, their co-stars—including indie filmmaker Joe Swanberg as the latter’s husband and Kristina Klebe as a vengeful femme fatale—seem to be acting in slightly different films. But where Proxy really missteps is in the more conventional genre-movie turn it eventually takes: This daring study of maternal instincts—or of that very concept, rather—works itself into a corner, its creator failing to find a compelling exit strategy. Like its characters, the film is not what it first appears to be. But it should have stopped shedding identities just short of the final reveal.