Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
October 2015

Knock Knock

Lip service

Eli Roth's 'Knock Knock' never gets anywhere beyond the surface of its premise

Knock Knock
Director: Eli Roth
Screenplay: Eli Roth, Nicolás López and Guillermo Amoedo
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Ignacia Allamand and Aaron Burns
Rated R / 1 hour, 39 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

You wait for a film to reveal itself. You give it some time. You wait patiently, because you've taken it on faith that there's something here - that we're building toward something. And then you realize, far too late, that the film already did reveal itself in full, and that there's actually nothing to see here, and that what you're watching is so much less than what you thought it would (or at least might) be.

This is the experience of watching Eli Roth's Knock Knock, which from the start seems to so obviously be one thing, we immediately assume it's something else. Its cagey tone and slow peeling-away of the characters' defenses only reinforces this expectation. And then ... it turns out it was really nothing more than that first thing after all. And that first thing was, and is, dull and obvious.

There are myriad clever ways to poke and subvert audience expectations, but it takes a much more clever filmmaker than Roth to pull it off. The effect of Knock Knock is not the provocative, electrifying whiplash we get from a film that challenges those expectations and assumptions - one that twists, un-twists, re-twists - but the numbing disappointment we get from a film that only ever had a single banal idea and just hoped we wouldn't notice. Roth is not outsmarting us; we're outsmarting him, and there's no satisfaction in that.

Here's our scenario. We meet a middle-aged man - a nice family man. His name is Evan. Evan is an architect. Evan has a loving wife and two loving kids. That loving wife and those loving kids are going away for the weekend, leaving Evan alone so he can work on his new project. Late into a rainy Friday night, two attractive, lightly dressed young women ring Evan's doorbell. They're lost, they say. They're supposed to be at a party and they've gotten the wrong address. Their phones have been rendered useless by the rain. They just want to come in and use his phone ... or his computer, to find the correct address on Facebook. Evan is awkward and polite. He offers them coffee. He brings them warm towels. He orders them an Uber. They sheepishly ask if they can get out of these wet clothes, so they can toss them in the dryer for a few minutes. He hesitantly says yes, and brings them robes so they can cover up.

The situation is fraught with possibilities, almost none of them good, but Roth makes it excessively clear that Evan is just trying to be a Nice Guy. Even when the girls - Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas) - get flirty and even a bit handsy, Evan immediately resists. He walks away, or he sits on the other side of the room. He constantly checks his phone, waiting for the car to arrive. What begins as a slow crawl toward possible - OK, inevitable - sexual indiscretion takes a turn toward the sinister, as the girls' extended flirtation is finally consummated in a scene that is less a seduction than a sexual assault.

At any rate, the real problems begin the next morning, when Genesis and Bel, rather aggressively making themselves at home in Evan's carefully domesticated space, reveal they have quite different, and more sinister, ideas in mind.

You could argue that Knock Knock is just Roth doing something rather straighforward, like a variation of a Fatal Attraction-type thriller. But there's such a self-consciousness to the way he wades into prickly gender politics and hints of sexual deviance and abuse that it's clear he's reaching for something different, more mischievous.

Only it never materializes - at least not in a way that isn't shamelessly disingenuous. This is not a deceptively simple film but a deceptively simplistic one. It's a strange position for Roth to put himself in - he seems so intent on letting us know he's got something up his sleeve, and yet nothing that occurs in the film's second half reveals anything that wasn't obvious from the moment that doorbell rang and those two girls materialized on Evan's doorstep. We've seen this story before, and the movie only goes to underscore that fact.

If the second half had done something truly interesting, I would be able to look back on the first half (particularly the entire extended scene between Evan and the two girls) with more fondness. It's a rather nicely paced and well-staged sequence, but in-the-moment, it works largely because of the way it's playing with the unspoken understanding of what's really going on between these three - what's allowed, what's possible, what's naughty, and who's willing to do what. But the film's attempt at a payoff is staggeringly mundane.

The moments that succeed are a credit to the cast, which is a nice mixture of three drastically different personalities. Izzo is particularly game for what turns out to be a more potent role than her early passivity suggests. Reeves is a solid, stoic everyman, but the more emotionally animated second half doesn't really play to his strengths.

There's a regret to seeing a movie like Knock Knock all the way through. It feels so ready to carve its own niche into well-explored territory, but when it finally comes down to it, it has absolutely nothing to say, and nowhere to go.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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