SPOILERS FOLLOW for the film False Positive
Any cinematic genre has the power to take creative risks, but especially horror. The possibilities of the eerie, uncanny, supernatural, and deranged open all kinds of storytelling avenues. Realism is pushed to its breaking point, and we expect that. Who wants a down-to-earth slasher movie? Or a ghost story in which the undead are just like, “No, it’s cool, you can live in our house now, it’s fine”? Casper was the exception! The best thing a horror movie can do is take a disturbing, unexpected premise and commit to it wholeheartedly—be about something. That self-assurance is what made classics out of films as different as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Shining, Get Out and The Nightmare on Elm Street, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Jaws, Jacob’s Ladder and Candyman. If the genre you’re playing in lets you do anything, well then, go ahead and do anything.
Within this realm, the subgenre of “pregnancy body horror” has steadily expanded, and that was what the film False Positive (read Kristy’s review!), in its early promotional materials and in its first trailer, seemed to be.
Obviously evocative of the Mia Farrow-starring Rosemary’s Baby in its “clearly insincere husband played by Justin Theroux, an actor who in movies always seems to play clearly insincere people” and “older parental figure who seems hella untrustworthy” elements, False Positive seemed like it was going to jump in the sandbox alongside The Brood, Prevenge, Antibirth, and even mother!. Ilana Glazer’s stricken face, coupled with Theroux’s looming body and Pierce Brosnan’s smugness, made for a “woman, violated” expectation that this subgenre often uses as starting point before spinning off into varying directions. But then False Positive goes … nowhere?
If you read Kristy’s review, perhaps you picked up on some of this already. False Positive follows Glazer’s character Lucia, who goes by Lucy and is married to older reconstructive surgeon Adrian (Theroux). They live together in one of those sprawling, beautiful, mostly empty Manhattan apartments, and they’ve been trying for two years to get pregnant with no success. Every day Lucy goes to her job at a marketing firm, where she’s the only woman and where her boss Greg (Josh Hamilton) treats her like an assistant, although she’s a copywriter—asking her to order the office lunch every day, blithely yammering on about his “female intuition.” Lucy hasn’t stayed in touch with her friends since marrying Adrian, who didn’t like them (“They’re young,” he complains), and she also doesn’t seem to have any family. So, a common horror (and real-life) trope: Woman falls in love, gets married, and is cut off from her former life. (If you want a TV version of this, Kevin Can F**k Himself on AMC is pretty good so far.)
With the “Lucy is lonely” setup in place, False Positive then introduces Dr. Hindle (Brosnan), an insanely in-demand fertility specialist who taught Adrian when he was in medical school. An appointment with Dr. Hindle normally takes years to secure, but Adrian just waltzes Lucy right in. All it takes is one conversation with Dr. Hindle for Lucy to trust him, since her husband trusts him. No matter that Adrian is giving off major “BAD GUY” warning signs: He passive-aggressively complains about Lucy’s “quirks.” To masturbate at the fertility center, he pulls up porn of a woman getting slapped and choked (and looking like she’s not enjoying it). His first name idea if they have a boy is his own name, which is the kind of casual narcissism our patriarchal society accepts. And of course, when Lucy ends up pregnant with a pair of male twins and a single girl, and Dr. Hindle encourages them to pursue “selective reduction” so they increase the chances of a healthy baby, Adrian wants to keep the boys. No matter that Lucy has talked about desperately wanting a daughter so she can recreate the bond she had with her recently deceased mother. The boys would be better, don’t you think?
Up until this point, False Positive is doing a recognizable, if somewhat predictable, exploration of the ways that marriage and motherhood diminish women of their own identities, their own desires, and their own selfhood. “Am I gonna be one of those women that has it all?” Lucy asks, and Adrian barely hides a scoff. Adrian gives her a gold bangle that he needs to screw on her, like a shackle. In the movie’s only sex scene, our perspective is upside down and disoriented, with Adrian’s body seeming to overwhelm Lucy’s. That’s all well and good, if a little been there, done that. But what False Positive also spends a fair amount of time doing, to diminishing—and then frankly, wholly disappointing—results, is set up the concept of “mommy brain” or “baby brain.” Doctors and researchers have argued about the validity of “mommy brain” for decades: Does pregnancy really make women more scatter-brained, forgetful, and even hallucinatory and delusional? Or, as recent studies show, does it actually cause brain growth, making women more aware and attentive?
There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer scientifically, and False Positive uses this uncertainty as a catch-all for its storytelling and its character development. On the one hand, everyone around Lucy uses “mommy brain” as an excuse to brush off her concerns; on the other hand, the film also places us alongside Lucy as she seems to imagine, fantasize, or hallucinate, experiences which she then puzzles over, wondering if they were “mommy brain” or real. After Lucy hears Dr. Hindle and Adrian speaking ominously over her body as she is given anesthesia, her husband tells her she “must have been dreaming.” When she imagines having a daughter named Wendy, named after Wendy Darling from Peter Pan, she sees the girl’s face blurring into a black mass, and when she receives a copy of Peter Pan as a gift, she sees the cover image of Peter Pan’s shadow melting into a pool of blood. When Adrian encourages her to join a mommy group, the women in it, including fast friend Corgan (Sophia Bush), insist “mommy brain is a real thing.” Finally, when Lucy becomes convinced that Dr. Hindle has done something to Wendy—the pregnancy she decided to keep—she insists that she’s not suffering from “mommy brain” and is seeing clearly. She’s going to keep Wendy, she’s going to quit her job, and she’s going to stop seeing Dr. Hindle. Women, doing it for themselves, and all that!
If that were the ending False Positive had stuck with, that would have been great. It wouldn’t have necessarily been a horror movie, but False Positive doesn’t stick to that genre very much, anyway. Instead, as Kristy alluded to in her review, the final act of False Positive reveals that Adrian and Dr. Hindle colluded and chose to keep the twin boys, essentially using Lucy as an incubator. When she births the twins, the super-tiny fetus that would have grown up to be Wendy is also expelled, still attached to her placenta. And an obviously foreshadowing line from Dr. Hindle earlier in the film, when he said, “Sometimes I wish I could clone myself,” turns out to be true. In a plot development lifted from the news, Dr. Hindle is using his own sperm to inseminate his patients.
Of course, that is a violation of a woman’s body. As Lucy rightly says to Dr. Hindle, this is arguably rape. But in the context of False Positive, this revelation doesn’t exactly jibe with everything that has come before, which flirted with the supernatural—bumps in the night Lucy can’t track down, all the blood that keeps spilling out of her body, the unsettling way Dr. Hindle’s nurses seem to be following her. It feels, dare I say, tame, given that the movie up until this point has evoked Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining—you know, demonic and ghost shit. And the “mommy brain” idea ultimately means that False Positive doesn’t have to commit to anything. Did Lucy really hear Dr. Hindle and Adrian plotting against her, or was that her “female intuition,” as Greg would say? Did Lucy really have this deep connection with Wendy, or was she just projecting her desire for a daughter? And I’m not even stepping into all the white privilege stuff False Positive also tries to tackle, which gives Zainab Jah a great moment but is overall handled so superficially that I wish the film hadn’t done it at all.
You could make the argument that the emotions we see Lucy struggling with are valid, and perhaps “reality” is irrelevant. Yet that doesn’t make the movie’s final moments fulfilling. Once Lucy learns what Dr. Hindle did, she attacks him, destroys all his sperm samples, and takes the plastic bag holding her placenta and the Wendy fetus. When she gets home to the apartment she shares with Adrian, she goes into the nursery, collects the screaming twin boys, and walks to the living room’s open window. One by one, she sets the boys outside the window, where they levitate in the air and then float away—figuratively, becoming the Lost Boys from the Peter Pan story she loves so much, or literally, falling to their deaths.
Seeing them float away from her, Lucy smiles. We do not see the boys die, but if we’re talking reality, we can assume that implication. That is dark and it is bleak and it is an ending that speaks to the trespass against Lucy’s body, to the resentment she feels toward these babies that sapped the nutrients that would have helped keep her third fetus alive, and to the fantastical imaginings we’ve seen her experience so far. Make “mommy brain” real, but make it a supernatural expression—make Lucy fall into this other reality, using the death of the babies as her gateway. Of course, that would be provocative and upsetting and unsettling. But it would be an ending, and it would be risky and in line with what one could expect from this genre, and it would make sense for Lucy as a character so shattered by her husband’s betrayal.
Barely a minute or so later, though, False Positive walks that back. The window scene didn’t happen. Instead, Adrian comes home, and Lucy puts both boys in his arms and orders him to “go”; it’s unclear whether she means forever. She goes into the living room, cradling the Wendy fetus, and puts it to her breast to feed. And we see another, possibly imagined, moment, as the fetus moves its head closer to her nipple to latch on, causing Lucy to cry.
The frustration of this real ending is twofold. The first issue is that Lucy giving Adrian the twins is presented as a sort of “taking back her life” moment, a gesture of female empowerment equal to Lucy kicking Dr. Hindle in the groin or shoving the vaginal ultrasound attachment down the throat of Dr. Hindle’s pushy, overly cheerful nurse Dawn (Gretchen Mol). (A motion that is evocative of rape, as a kind of equalizing of Lucy’s own rape, is, as the kids like to say, problematic.) All of those moments feel insufficient to address what happened to Lucy and what happened to Wendy, and again reflect the film’s split loyalties regarding horror as a genre and misogyny as a reality with which we all live. And the second issue is that the film’s interior rules of “mommy brain” only seem to apply when Lucy is protecting Wendy, as in that breastfeeding scene. More meaningful, I would think—and more horror—would be False Positive daring to make its protagonist distorted by the betrayal she endured, enraged by it, made vengeful by it.
“You’ll get a fairytale ending,” Dr. Hindle had said to Lucy in their first meeting, and False Positive would have been far more impactful, and more true to the genre it is constantly referencing, if that “fairytale ending” Lucy was promised was turned on its head and made a tragedy at her own hand. Without that, False Positive feels like a movie with a lot of points about womanhood and the patriarchy but not much to say about the latter’s nightmarishly transformative effects.
False Positive is streaming on Hulu as of June 25, 2021.
Image sources (in order of posting): Hulu Press, Hulu Press