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To fully analyze the unnerving nature of the smart, dark, pleasantly warped Proxy, which further confirms Zack Parker as a filmmaker to watch, is to ruin some of its surprises. Suffice it to say, though, that while a lot of Hollywood movies (and certainly no small number of even independent productions) conflate narrative ambition with only special effects and the grand expression of visual style, Proxy is a film powered by a bold idea—the sort of movie that reveals in slow, peeled-onion fashion the true nature of its narrative aims, the actual story at its core. For most of its running time, however, it’s absorbing because one doesn’t know quite what the hell it wants from its viewers.

The film opens with a gruesome attack, in which the pregnant, pretty and painfully meek Esther Woodhouse (Alexia Rasmussen) is beaten unconscious in an alley by an unknown attacker. After she miscarries and is questioned by police, Esther starts attending a local support group for others who have experienced the loss of a child. There, she bonds with Melanie Michaels (Alexa Havins), whose son was killed by a drunk driver.

What initially seems like a fortifying new bond and genuine emotional lifeline, however, quickly rots on the vine. Esther proves both incapable of disentangling herself from a dysfunctional relationship with Anika Barön (Kristina Klebe), a petty convict whose temperament couldn’t be more different, and then insinuates herself further into the lives of Melanie and her husband, Pat (Joe Swanberg). As twisted truths are revealed, dark consequences for all roll in like Midwestern thunderclouds.

Filmed and set in Parker’s hometown of Richmond, Indiana, Proxy touches a bit on the legacy of violence (a subject handled much more messily in last year’s The Place Beyond the Pines), but with an extraordinarily light touch, through hints and suggestions about its characters’ histories. Mostly, the movie is a sort of behavioral procedural, in which a series of overlapping mysteries feed one another, resolve and bloom anew in fascinating and frequently violent ways.

Parker is a filmmaker who isn’t much concerned with conventional protagonist/antagonist interplay. As evidenced in his previous film, the intriguing Scalene, Parker has more of an interest in ambiguity, but also specifically in exploring wobbly, uncertain audience sympathies. Scalene traded more in subtle, Rashomon-style shifts in character perspective, where Proxy leans more on good, old-fashioned plot twists. This lends the movie a lot of its success, while also giving it a distancing effect. While its story beats more or less track, viewers seeking pat, easily translatable explanations about psychological motivation will be frustrated.

There’s some odd, if arresting, gore contained herein—the sizzle to sell the steak, perhaps. There’s also a pinch of the macabre to be found, especially in a classical string score, from composers Andy and Taylor Newton, which gives the material’s purplish stakes an ironic, lush counterpoint. But there’s no mustache-twirling or wink-wink rib-nudging here, no easy emotional out to be had. If not really gritty, Proxy is certainly grounded in terms of its atmosphere.

Redolent in unnerving mood, Proxy invests in the feelings and devastations of its characters, and the cast by and large rewards Parker, working from a script co-written with Kevin Donner. While fellow director Swanberg is a bit out of his depth as Pat, the rest of Parker’s principal players—especially Rasmussen and Klebe—command attention with complex characterizations. Their performances power this knotty, bruised well-assembled thriller, a guaranteed conversation-starter, no matter what one party ultimately thinks of it.

Brent Simon is a regular contributor to Screen Daily, Paste, Playboy, Magill’s Cinema Annual and ShockYa, among many other outlets, as well as a member and former three-term president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

Director: Zack Parker
Writers: Kevin Donner and Zack Parker
Starring: Alexia Rasmussen, Alexa Havins, Kristina Klebe, Joe Swanberg
Release Date: Apr. 18, 2014