From minute one, everything feels just a little bit off in John Lee’s False Positive. The first act lives in a heightened satire of Manhattan privilege, taking digs at excitement over Dig Inn orders while Lucy (Ilana Glazer) and Adrian (Justin Theroux) struggle to conceive in their fiercely lit triple height penthouse apartment that peers over the streets like the Tower of Terror. The grim lower perspective on their building echoes the way Mia Farrow stared up at the gothic architecture of her character’s home on the same island in Rosemary’s Baby.
Lee’s film, on which he shares a screenwriting credit with Glazer, borrows a lot from the rightfully disgraced Roman Polanski’s undeniable 1968 masterstroke. But its strength lies more in how it reclaims the narrative rather than retelling it. The plot kicks in as Adrian offers to take Lucy to a renowned fertility doctor who happens to be his former professor (Pierce Brosnan). The ultra-modern, ultra-clean clinic at first seems like a hopeful mother’s dream. Brosnan’s Dr. Hindle is quick to comfort Lucy, offering immediate solutions, and then results, for the couple’s conception trouble via artificial insemination. Suddenly, Lucy is glowing, and that’s when things go from feeling off to feeling wrong.
Even so, Lee’s direction and Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography play it cool, similar to how he shot Hereditary and Midsommar with Ari Aster. False Positive builds not unlike the latter, with little things going wrong building to bigger contradictions and visual paranoia. At just 92 minutes, the film is stunningly economical, even with a great many of its scenes purposefully slowing to a crawl to achieve an uneasy social awkwardness (you’ll never see Brosnan the same after you’ve seen him slowly ready gynecological tools with a cheery smile here).
But with such elongated sequences, the film naturally relies heavily on its cast to carry them. Glazer knocks it out of the park, perfectly in tune with and reacting to the film’s satire of New York high society while still becoming believably paranoid about just how much control she has over her body. Theroux, too, is perfect as the loving but suspicious husband. His charm goes beyond what could have been a simple Christian Grey-type and into something real. And then there’s Brosnan, stealing scenes right out from under both of them with a horrifying level-headedness that’ll have you screaming at the screen and squirming in your seat.
Together, alongside a quietly deranged Gretchen Mol as Hindle’s all too loyal assistant, the main cast fits very comfortably in the roles that populated Rosemary’s Baby, to the point where the transition from the second act to the third feels a little too much like a mere remake. But False Positive manages to elevate itself with a much more contemporary intent than the classic it borrows from. Where Rosemary came up against the antichrist itself, here, the devil is found in the patriarchy. Glazer and Lee’s script manages to make men the villain without talking down to its audience or reading false (or too preachy). That’s partially due to savvy writing and filmmaking, but also because the film is bringing attention to real things that happen to real women.
The film’s twists are a little obvious, and it doesn’t necessarily even try to disguise them rather than set an uneasy tone throughout, but they serve a larger purpose. Once the third act evolves into the story’s ultimate resolution, things go artistically off the wall in the most satisfying way possible. The last ten minutes are the type of filmmaking where you and everyone in the audience around you has their jaw on the floor. But its oddities have major emotional purpose in getting to the place False Positive bravely leaves us on. It’s brazen but rewarding—a splash of cold water that earns our attention and then some. For as much as the film plays to the strengths of the classic it’s reimagining, its ultimate point is beautifully executed and wholly invigorating. This isn’t a story about a woman’s body, it’s one about the control men grant themselves, and what the fight for freedom from that might look like.