“What do you want?”
“I want to play hide and seek.”
Normally, I allow a movie a decent amount of time to settle within me – within my brain, my heart, the pit of my stomach, or whatever destination it might have claimed – before launching into the process of writing a review. My digestive system failed me fairly early on, however, as I watched Eli Roth’s Knock Knock. Reviews on DAE are fussy, cockeyed things to begin with, greenlit or squashed like a grape on little more than a whim and subject to sudden, sometimes staggering change at all times. Some wait for their author in the back alley with a tire iron and mounting impatience while others have to be cobbled together out of endlessly revised individual parts days, weeks, or even longer stretches after the fact. Well before I finished Roth’s 100-minute dog whistle concerto, I had already determined there was no real point in writing about it, a decision that, although I made myself slog to its end, still almost single-handedly rescued the remainder of my Sunday from a waist-high and deepening pit of despair. What a difference a day makes. The film, a criminally self-satisfied home invasion thriller in which two scantily-clad, rain-soaked emissaries of the Snapchat generation infiltrate the Hollywood Hills on an impressively choreographed mission to seduce and destroy an upwardly mobile soccer dad, contains a total of zero surprises that are not either explicitly spelled out in its IMDb plot synopsis or telegraphible by the average viewer three moves, or minutes, or, occasionally, miles, in advance. It’s not merely a bad movie, unfortunately.
I’ve liked Eli Roth’s work in the past, though, and I’ll admit to being intrigued by the broad strokes of the scenario. It can be argued, of course, that Roth’s primary strength as a filmmaker is conceptual, as his ability to concoct specific conceits too lurid and juicy to be instantly dismissed has thus far defined his career more than any particular skill as a writer or technician. What might’ve been a warning sign here hadn’t yet been in my experience. Moreover, two of my favorite horror movies of the millennium – Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers and Adam Wingard’s You’re Next – are technically home invasion thrillers, so I’m not immune to the subgenre’s savage charms. That initial curiosity lingered and, no doubt, festered over time, even as Knock Knock suddenly left theaters, as if through a fire exit, then rocketed past all the relevant mile markers – VOD, Redbox, pay cable, du jour streaming – in a modern b-movie’s lifecycle, on its way to a final destination as the next-to-next-to-last movie on my DVR, recorded off HBO in January and, apparently, cryogenically frozen until just the right listless weekend appeared almost a year later. Rather than thrilling like You’re Next or terrifying like The Strangers, Knock Knock takes the odd tactic of attempting to humiliate, and, eventually, actively depress its almost certainly predominantly male audience. That first aim is intentional; the second is an unavoidable by-product. Moreover, for an overtly sexual movie, it is not sexy in the least. Cinematic voyeurs should proceed with extreme caution.
My complicity up front is probably necessary for this review to have any merit, because, on a certain level and after a certain point, Knock Knock felt like a prolonged and dedicated attempt to personally punish me, its viewer, for the sin of possibly having had the prurient interest required to want to watch a movie like Knock Knock in the first place. I’m not particularly ashamed of this recurring emotional shade in my filmgoing makeup – “sex sells” goes the tired axiom, and my money is as green as anyone’s – but I am suitably browbeaten and contrite for the moment. Roth’s film makes damned sure of that at the expense of almost everything that could’ve arguably better served him – mood, suspense, organic tension, even outright mayhem – replacing it wholesale with a creeping, pervasive, eventually all-encompassing dread that works exquisitely for a hot minute but eventually collapses as a result of excessive torque and overuse. Keanu Reeves stars as John Wick’s wet blanket doppelganger, Evan, a big-ticket architect and family man living the dream with his beautiful artist wife and two perfect kids in a house equal parts austere and ostentatious, the sort of sprawling, glass-intensive compound that aerial camerawork was virtually invented to document. Evan works late at home over a holiday weekend while his family vacations at the beach, when an unexpected knock at the door disturbs his groove. Awaiting his answer are a pair of nubile girls with opaque, giggly intentions, having stepped out of a conveniently rainy SoCal night to upend his idyllic existence.
Their sob story checks out…more or less…at first. Evan is inconvenienced, nonplussed even, but still just wants to help. The girls, Genesis and Bel, recount a tale of being stranded by a cab driver on their way to a party, impose upon Evan just long enough to use his phone, then his computer, then throw their wet clothes in his dryer, etc. (and then a little longer), are wide-eyed, fascinated, and deferential as he confides little details of his life, then alternately playful and seriously pointed as the discussion segues into life experience and sex. Most anyone who has felt twinges of discomfort during an altruistic pursuit will recognize the seeds of eventual betrayal here: the gradual and increasingly brazen violations of privacy, personal space, sanctity of the home, and whatnot. Roth hides them in plain sight for us to chew and choke on – “Your wife’s so pretty!”; “We’re worldly and go with the flow because we’re flight attendants!” (paraphrased); Plus, what sentient female between the age of ten and forty conveniently “forgets” her phone at home when heading out for the night? – and when the situation finally goes south, it falls off a cliff and directly into the bowels of hell. I realize that I may be making the movie sound more interesting than it is, but, if so, it is only in a dour, unsatisfyingly clinical way – the way scientists watch hamsters run a maze, or lab rats turn on and devour each other out of hunger.
To their credit, the three leads do absolutely whatever is asked of them with moxy to spare, but all are so essentially compromised and, as is soon painfully apparent, unappealing as people that simply developing lasting, palatable rooting interests in a story that seems tailor-made for one option or the other alone becomes much more of a chore than it should be, for far less payoff than is reasonable. Evan’s stupid, predictable, practically predestined sexual indiscretion occurs at the film’s midpoint, and it’s a doozy. He wakes up next morning, panicky and already racked with guilt, unaware of just what sort of consequential switch his dangerous liaison has flipped within Genesis and Bel, who transform in the blink of an eye from pleasant, albeit fast-forward, fantasy fodder to anarchic, flesh-rending harpies right out of Greek myth by way of Hot Topic. Evan’s gated community, nuclear family ideal never seems convincing as a day-to-day existence. Instead, Roth presents it as facile, and, especially, fragile, from the jump, with Genesis and Bel the unsubtle equivalent of basic cable house flippers who demolish your antiquated kitchen in anticipation of a better replacement. It’s just that, normally, such technicians don’t reduce the room to charred rubble and then jump up and down on the ashes, or literally bind and gag the client while going about their work. Reeves takes his own wild swings at indignity and incredulity before melting away with alarming speed into a simpering mud puddle, leaving any hope of an involving cat-and-mouse game between homeowner and houseguests dead on arrival.
I misspoke earlier when lamenting Knock Knock’s complete lack of surprise, since Genesis and Bel are able to pull one particularly nasty trick on Evan that I’ll admit I wasn’t anticipating. The fallout from this act effectively raises the stakes even as it poisons the well, and what began as a merely uncomfortable experience becomes increasingly noxious. There is, I suppose, a tacit, reptilian thrill that comes from witnessing such a thorough and forceful inversion of the traditional sexual power structure, but, weirdly, it’s the only emotion elicited by the movie that doesn’t last. Forgive me for generalizing, but I would say your patience for watching this situation play out, escalate, then finally break down and putrefy, will be influenced by a few contributing factors: your gender; your politics; your personal experience; your basic humanity; your tolerance for clumsy writing* delivered by hateful and/or hapless characters; your interest in watching Keanu Reeves tied to various pieces of furniture for extended periods of time, frustrated and functionally impotent; your interest in watching photogenic, bipolar twenty-somethings act like vapid coeds one moment, Times Square prostitutes another, and agents of biblical vengeance another, all the while maintaining text message-worthy conversational rhythms; your innate philosophical fascination with car wrecks. There comes a point – following, let’s just say, a solid hour of aimless, though strangely escalating, melodrama bereft of intrigue but hemorrhaging crass, precisely calibrated misbehavior – where the question is worth asking: how much more of this do I really need to watch? For a movie that clocks in at just shy of 100 minutes, the viewing experience is damned near interminable.
*SPOILERZ AHOY! – The gods of contrivance gift Evan a conspicuously tender and easily exploitable shoulder injury, then grant a potential rescuer a chronic, crippling asthma problem that only flares up, or even makes itself known, at just the wrong time. This on top of making Evan a scatterbrained klutz with no dependable ability to hold a knife without dropping it or think on his feet without tripping over them. Roth reshapes the playing field until it is effectively below sea level and still sloping downward. His machinations run the gamut from trite to infuriating, and are never clever, ever.
Knock Knock seems to be couched as a cautionary tale, though what exactly it’s cautioning against is murky: Good Samaritanism? Answering the front door? Trusting a pretty face? Extending benefit of the doubt to anyone, ever? Having a life, career, and family so perfect that it feels ordered out of a high end catalogue? Marital infidelity is the low-hanging fruit here, and of that Reeves’ Evan is, of course, profoundly guilty, though I will say that I’ve read about multi-year, multi-target FBI stings that were more haphazardly planned than this seemingly random ambush over a holiday weekend. Roth’s high concept potboilers tend to be successful – or maybe effective is a better word, though possibly not always in the way initially intended – for a simple reason. His specialty is to immerse his audience in an unthinkable situation – you and your friends are attacked by a flesh-eating virus; you and your friends are attacked by a tribe of primitive cannibals; you and your friends are kidnapped by an underground business that auctions untraceable thrill-kills off to the highest bidder – well before he afflicts his characters with the same deadly knowledge. In theory, it’s suspense at its most brutal and unsparing. What could be worse than waiting around to begin waiting around to horribly die? In practice, laundry still has to be hung on the line, and it is left to Roth to involve and/or entertain until the scenario’s ticking clock (zero hour, dinner time, murder session, etc.) runs out. The seedy exoticism of squalid Eastern Europe helped him keep both Hostel movies afloat through their own choppy waters, but this time around, purposely confined to a single, surface level setting, Roth has nothing to lean on but his already spotty storytelling instincts and tendency toward wielding sadism as a quick plotting fix.
Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke presented a similar exercise in moral sewage treatment in the late ‘90s with his unblinking, purposely repellant, punitive home invasion parable Funny Games, in which two blase country club youths imprison a family in their home and torture them for the sheer hell of it. The film purported to be a commentary on cinematic bloodlust, seeking to rub the viewer’s face in that which he ostensibly craved most. Haneke remade Funny Games with legit English language movie stars a few years later to better foster a dialog with the debauched American moviegoing public, which was his intended target all along. Comparatively, Knock Knock comes off as, at best, a toothless homage, and, even seen on its own merits, a terminally confused, casually ugly, decidedly anemic affair. Worse, given the current revelatory national conversation around sexual assault inspired by the “#MeToo” movement, it already feels retrograde, which is astonishing for a movie that, as of this writing, is still only a few years old (it was famously long shelved before theatrical release). One pictures Roth the writer hunched over a laptop, rubbing his hands together like a robber baron mid-takeover, delighted at his own subversiveness and willingness to go where more angelic auteurs might fear to tread. What might elsewhere have been a genuinely stirring, protracted battle of wills between shockingly unlikely antagonists and a flawed but relatable principal became, instead, a slovenly, unending exercise in domestic terror, pitting a “hero” who puts the “pathetic” in “sympathetic” against two amoral loons. Whatever germ of a good idea Knock Knock originally contained – whatever caused Reeves to not just star but executive produce – is quickly swallowed up by its misguided, unwavering determination to cut against the grain at all costs.
“Knock Knock” (2015) 1.5/4 stars