Sundance Review: Eli Roth’s Knock Knock

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In which Eli Roth stays in. The writer-director, whose films have a penchant for observing the wrongheaded who go out into the world and discover horror, is quite clearly and fascinatingly switching things up. Here, in his sort of home invitasion movie Knock Knock, his lead—who no less makes all the wrong moves—simply has to open the door. What happens when terror comes home? Nothing, if you’re smart. An attempt at absurdist psychocomedy, if you’re not. 

Keanu Reeves’ Evan, being a male Eli Roth protagonist, is not smart. Or, at least not strong. Working alone in his upper class home on a rainy evening, Evan hears a knock or two at the door. Who’s there? Genesis and Bel (Lorenza Izzo & Ana de Armas, respectively), a pair of beauties cold and distressed. A besweatered nice guy dad to the max, Evan comes to their aid, and subsequently does so with each new request, a transgression in doe-eyed disguise.

This first half of the film (inspired by the Colleen Camp & Sondra Locke-starring Death Game, both of whom produced here), largely contained and almost theatrical, hosts the dark comedy of watching Reeves squirm. His Evan is, for the most part, truly a Nice Guy. When Genesis and Bel drop sexually forward nuggets of conversation, suggestive touches in body language, his discomfort is screaming off the screen. Roth crafts a visual gag of Evan endlessly switching seats in his living room, the point blank nature of the frame making each awkward move funnier than the last. He can run, but in this open space, clearly can’t hide. This is where Knock Knock is at its best, the nervous tension of “when?” Not when will Evan’s layers peel and reveal something base, but when will he break? How much of the girls’ maneuvering can he take? How much of his “I used to be a DJ” can they?

Evan’s ultimate indulgence is of a grand 90s erotic thriller nature, the suspense score turned high, the illicitness of it all relished in flashes of lightning and clawing of skin. It’s sadly one of the few moments where the film gets truly stylish. In the others, Roth’s camera traverses Evan’s giant home, surveying hallways of family photos and his wife’s modern art. Each stroll through—almost act breaks—reveals a crack, different shades of the same décor. Once a photo is wholesome, the next time it’s watchful. The blinds however are always perfectly perched so as to cut the light with noirish shade.

Post-threesome is when Knock Knock gets truly out of hand, as both Genesis and Bel consider themselves permanent residents, new loves and Evan’s children all at once. Wide-eyed and charged to drive Evan mad with guilt and acknowledgment of a transgression far beyond his adulterous mistake, they sexually and violently destroy the symbols of his happy home: his daughter’s clothes, his wife’s work, the hanging photos, his clinging-to-cool record collection. Here Roth turns his focus away from the standard cautionary tale and to the nature of how a stumble becomes a fall.

Very active on social media—The Green Inferno’s end credits sees cast and crew accompanied by their twitter handles—Roth is clearly aware of its swarming nature, how a case of foot-in-mouth can ruin you. Genesis and Bel are not villains for seducing Evan. Shitty choices make for shitty consequence, after all. Their ultimate sinister act is in trying to amplify Evan’s act of betrayal into something criminal. It’s sort of the ultimate adult white male fear that things are blown out of proportion. The film’s psychological torture however begins to mirror Evan’s spiral and Knock Knock enters into tonal disarray.

Roth has always made horror-comedies, the humor pitched between subversive and dark, and broad and gross. Knock Knock again aims for that sweet spot, but it’s often lacking visual texture, suffering from a flat, stilted aesthetic. As the absurdity of both the girls’ behavior and Evan’s reaction escalates, only Armas is able to match it, her knowing smile both sly and horrific throughout. It doesn’t help that the girls’ tactics are perhaps far too worn. Izzo and Armas’ chemistry as a gruesome twosome is real deal, but their characters’ giddy psychotics are familiar. They just never push as far as Roth has proven he’s willing to go, hindering any satire of grown men playing the victim—Reeves’ final rant, sure to be immortalized by the film’s fans quoting “free pizza” comes close.

From Cabin Fever’s selfish ensemble, to Hostel’s ugly Americans, to Hostel Part II’s empowering turned tables, to The Green Inferno’s nihilistic punchline, Knock Knock just isn’t as cutting; a shame, when it could be so relevant.

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Weekend: Jul. 18, 2019, Jul. 21, 2019

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