Review: The ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ setup of ‘False Positive’ is chilling but ending disappoints

A nurse attempts to comfort a worried pregnant woman in the movie "False Positive."
Ilana Glazer, left, and Gretchen Mol in the movie “False Positive.”
( Michael O’Neale / Hulu)

Actress and writer Ilana Glazer is best known for her bubbly, absurdist comedic work, especially on her dearly departed Comedy Central show “Broad City.” But for her first leading film role and feature screenwriting debut, Glazer takes a hard left. “False Positive,” co-written by Glazer and director John Lee, is a pregnancy horror film that may as well be called “Rosemary’s Revenge,” in its similarities (and notable differences) to “Rosemary’s Baby.” Following in the footsteps of Jordan Peele, Lee (who directed episodes of “Broad City”) and Glazer swerve from comedy to horror, using the genre as a vehicle for social commentary about modern motherhood, misogyny and manipulation. “False Positive” is Glazer’s “Get Out,” which is a phrase you want to scream at her character, Lucy, over and over again.

Lucy is married to an older man, Adrian (Justin Theroux). She’s got big ambitions: a promotion at the creative agency where she works, and she and Adrian are trying for a baby too. “Maybe I can have it all,” she speculates. But becoming pregnant proves challenging, so Lucy and Adrian consult a fertility specialist who happens to be Adrian’s friend and former teacher, Dr. John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan).

Dr. Hindle’s office is staffed by crisp nurses outfitted in candy striper-via-Stepford uniforms; Dawn (Gretchen Mol) oozes politesse though she has all the charm of Nurse Ratched Barbie. It’s a cold, sterile and imposing place, where the procedures Lucy undergoes in order to become pregnant leave her feeling disembodied, literally, figuratively and symbolically onscreen. Her pregnancy is one of whispers and gaslighting, and she yearns for a more connected, cosmic and spiritual experience, since she already feels so emotionally connected to the daughter, Wendy, she assumes she will have.

A doctor attends to a birth as the expectant father watches in the movie "False Positive."
Pierce Brosnan, left, and Justin Theroux in the movie “False Positive.”
( Anna Kooris / Hulu)

Lucy is as isolated and afraid as Rosemary Woodhouse, alone in New York City, surrounded only by men and hostile, ingratiating and untrustworthy women. Lee uses Pawel Pogorzelski, the cinematographer who also shot Ari Aster’s “Hereditary” and “Midsommar,” to visualize Lucy’s plight and her increasingly nightmarish experience of pregnancy. Pogorzelski’s photography drains the life and color from Dr. Hindle’s facility as well as Lucy and Adrian’s stark, modern apartment. Mirrors underline the characters’ double natures, and pitch-black darkness encroaches on their domestic tranquility. Lucy herself is often shot upside down, as she enters a confusing and terrifying underworld as a pregnant person. With Yair Elazar Glotman and Lucy Railton’s score of percussive strings and women’s voices, the horror aesthetic is tightly controlled yet menacingly oppressive, until it explodes.

The climax is a combustion of female intuition, rage and deep sorrow; it provides catharsis, the kind that was previously denied to characters like Rosemary. However, it’s also where “False Positive” loses its tight grip on the story. Things become surreal and hallucinatory as Lucy loses her grasp on reality in order to come to terms with the truth. But a rushed ending leaves loose ends frayed around the edges and reveals dastardly secrets that are frustratingly predictable. Lucy’s rageful reaction is clumsy and brutish.

For all the tightly wound tension that Lee extracts from the first three-quarters of the film, you expect something more evil, perhaps even supernatural to unfold. The foundation is there to take it to even darker places, but perhaps the point of “False Positive” is that we cannot become inured to those all too-plausible villains who walk and work among us — and are applauded. They deserve our full-throated rage and bloodlust too.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘False Positive’

Rated: R, for disturbing/bloody images, sexual content, graphic nudity and language

Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Playing: Available June 25 on Hulu