In False Positive, actor Pierce Brosnan is given a welcome opportunity to play a bad guy for the first time in ages. But as Dr. John Hindle, the world's number one fertility specialist, he's not only bad he's certifiable in a story that is a deeply weird cross between Rosemary's Baby and The Boys From Brazil.
There have been a lot of scary movies about demon births. From The Omen to Rosemary's Baby, it's a subject that keeps coming back to the cinemas and no wonder really.
Pregnancy is undeniably miraculous but it can also be terrifying and classic films like Alien and The Boys From Brazil have enthusiastically exploited the darker side of the experience to very memorable effect.
This week, Hulu adds another chapter to these difficult birth flicks with the psychological horror False Positive, with Pierce Brosnan, 68, starring as Dr. John Hindle, the creepiest fertility specialist on the eastern seaboard (the film arrives on Hulu on June 25).
Looking like a cross between Josef Mengele and Santa Claus, Brosnan's white beard and paternalistic manners immediately make us question his motives and it's soon clear from his character's phony smile that the Irish actor is relishing the chance to play a villain this villainous.
False Positive begins with a husband and wife Lucy (Broad City's Ilana Glazer) and Adrian (Justin Theroux) desperately but unsuccessfully trying to have a baby.
We don't get to know very much about this privileged couple other than that they are white, rich, and live in a palatial apartment somewhere in New York City, where Adrian is suddenly eager to become a first-time father.
Lucy isn't sold on the idea of motherhood yet because she's still angling for a promotion at work. Wouldn't motherhood throw a wrench in all of my plans she asks her husband and the film lets us see it's a good question after her longed-for promotion is roughly pulled away when news of her pregnancy gets out.
So False Positive clearly wants us to consider the limited paths that are available to women and the ways in which their independence can be easily compromised by circumstances that give all the preference (and the big bucks) to men.
It all starts off promisingly enough, though. We first see that Adrian is a caring husband and that Lucy is a gifted young woman whose ideas excite the advertising company she works for (to the point where she's invited to take over an important new account, meaning higher pay and more opportunity). But even as she lands lucrative new contracts for her company the men are still giving her their lunch orders for Dig Inn, in service they would never think to provide themselves.
In every scene of the film, things feel just slightly off. The blond nurses at Dr. Hindle's office are robotic and relentlessly cheerful, smiling too widely and too often. The gynecology exams and in-fertilization scenes with Lucy are so uncomfortable to watch you will cross your legs involuntarily. Clearly, something sinister is happening or about to.
“So you two need a little help,” grins Dr. Hindle to the couple, with a smile that has run for your life written all over it. The trouble is that with every scene flashing danger ahead, we begin to lose some respect for Lucy for failing to see it. How many red lights does she need to see we begin to wonder if everything is on the up and up?
Meanwhile, Drogheda-born Brosnan has a remarkable pandemic, if you can call it that, with four projects released just this year and six in waiting, a remarkable slate for the in-demand Irish actor and former James Bond who is now in his late 60's.
From his first scene in this odd, tonally shifting, psychological horror he's playing the kind of character we haven't seen from him before, someone whose motives are hard to guess at and who is far too ready with some soothing nonsense meant to throw us off the scent.
The atmosphere of the film, which is often bathed in red and blue light and can get so shadowy you'll strain to see what's happening, is part of its appeal. Like Lucy, we can't quite tell what exactly is happening until it's entirely too late to do anything about it.
False Positive is smart, but maybe a little too smart, with its character reveals. The film coyly touches two of the third rails of American life, abortion and homosexuality, and clearly means to say something provocative about both of them.
The trouble is it is increasingly hard to say what the film or Lucy is saying, as she falls prey to suspicion and growing paranoia, only to be gaslighted by her sometime friends for having “Mommy brain.”
Is this film a satire of all those cloying motherhood dramas where pregnancy is seen only as a rewarding gift minus the trauma and uncertainty? Or is it a commentary on the current state of American politics, where paternalistic men like Dr. Hindle are increasingly sounding authoritarian in their pronouncements and where unspoken dread is the real currency of the realm?
Somewhere in the middle of this film, a remarkable one is screaming to get out, but instead, the weird shifts in tone, focus, and character development wrong-foot both the characters and audience, to the point where we stop caring.
As the reveals arrive they become increasingly gonzo. What started off as a kind of Handmaid's Tale critique of male entitlement turns into something completely off the wall. One scene involving Brosnan receiving oral sex from one of the film's male characters is clearly intended as a rug pulling moment, but it actually plays as low-key offensive. Being gay looks like shorthand for being untrustworthy, which the writers don't intend but the film still suggests. It may make you scoff instead of shudder.
Is Lucy descending into madness? Is what she is seeing real or some form of prenatal hallucination brought about by trauma and depression? If she can't tell what's real how can we?
The last ten minutes of the film range between ax dragging revenge drama and over-the-top humor, without actually deciding which is preferable. I was startled and intrigued and appalled and hooting with derision which is a lot of emotions to go through admittedly.
By throwing everything they've got – including blood and guts – at the wall, False Positive asks us to examine our own ideas about motherhood, pregnancy, marriage, abortion, sexism, and misogyny, but it's like ordering fireworks when you just need a candle to make things out. It's both too much and weirdly not enough.
We don't learn much about Lucy or Adrian by the film's end. Instead, we witness how the deepening contradictions of this low and unequal age we are all living through are driving more and more people clean out of their minds.
False Positive doesn't have a feel-good message to deliver but it ends by suggesting that saving yourself may be the first step on the long, long road to saving others.
*This column first appeared in the June 23 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.