There are few things more horrifying than a mother causing harm to her own child as a means of seeking attention, yet this particular pathological phenomenon, known as Münchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSbP), has only occasionally been explored in horror movies, most famously in M. Night Shyamalan’sThe Sixth Sense, in which the ghost of a young girl draws Cole Sear’s attention to the cause of her death (poisoning by her mother), thereby saving the life of her sister, who has begun to exhibit the same symptoms. (MSbP also featured in 2003 J-horror One Missed Call, and as a subplot in the second series of Danish-Swedish television seriesThe Bridge.) With Proxy, the startling fourth feature from writer-director Zack Parker, MSbP becomes the catalyst for a compelling thriller-slash-horror film in which, as with the syndrome itself, nothing is what it seems to be. Even the poster, with its disturbing image of a bloody embryo, is misleading in a deliberate way.
The seeds of disquiet are sewn early, as heavily pregnant twenty-something Esther (Torchwood’s Alexia Rasmussen) has an ultrasound scan, showing scant interest in her baby. On her way home, she is attacked and knocked unconscious by an unknown assailant, who – in an almost unbearably violent scene – deliberately pummels her distended belly, killing Esther’s baby in utero. After recovering in hospital, Esther attends a support group for grieving mothers, where she meets Melanie (Alexa Havins), who suffered an equally tragic loss when her little boy was killed by a drunk driver. The pair strike up a friendship based on shared grief, but as Esther gets to known Melanie better, she realises that her new friend may not be telling the whole truth about her son.
And now here’s the critic’s dilemma: to say more would be to potentially spoil any one of the tangle of twists and turns taken by Zack Parker and co-writer Kevin Donner’s remarkable script, yet the above synopsis hardly describes a film that demands to be seen – for that, you’ll have to skip to the star rating. Proxy is a deliberately slow burner, drawing you in without ever taking your hand, forcing you to pay attention to every tiny detail, in case it proves to be important. (In this sense,Proxy recalls Mike Flanagan’s Absentia.) It’s so deviously constructed, in fact, that it’s impossible even to be sure who the main character is, despite the fact that, for the first hour, Esther appears in every scene.
Rasmussen gives an engaging, appropriately inscrutable performance as Esther, while genre regular Joe Swanberg arguably does his best work, particularly in an extended support group scene, one of several which ably demonstrates Parker and Dillon’s insight into the insidious effects of grief, and the irreparable damage done by the loss of a child. The real standout, however, is Havins, who gives a textured, nuanced and utterly convincing performance as the troubled Melanie; almost every one of her scenes requires her to do the most difficult, subtle and often very painful work, and she nails it every time. Havins’ performance, along with a stunning two-and-a-half-minute slow-motion sequence which everyone who sees the film will be talking about, are just two compelling reasons to see what will hopefully be Parker’s breakthrough movie.
It’s a smart, assured, and satisfyingly twisty little horror, every bit as shocking and disturbing as the image on its US poster, but a hell of a lot more subtle.