Eli Roth pivots from the relentless gore that marked his early career and churns out a comparatively sedate effort in the form of an erotic psychological thriller.
And while it couldn’t be mistaken for anything other than an Eli Roth film, Knock Knock finds the “torture porn” progenitor (a moniker he earned by making the Hostel series) growing up in fits and starts, keeping his trademark twisted humour and broad social commentary intact while jettisoning some of the more extreme elements of previous works.
It’s an interesting comparison, as Roth’s long-delayed and incredibly brutal The Green Inferno saw release this past September with Knock Knock coming out less than a month later. And while Roth doesn’t have the cultural impact he once did, he’ll likely continue to provoke the ire of strict moralists and the easily offended. The difference is that with Knock Knock his politics are more muddled than ever and he doesn’t have the benefit of his shocking (and often well executed) violence to fall back on to keep an audience’s attention.
While Roth’s debut Cabin Fever was an icky cautionary tale drenched in anti-sex fervour, Hostel Parts I and II satirized (and some say sympathized with) xenophobic Americans and The Green Inferno took aim at armchair activists; Knock Knock, in turn, looks to take a torch to the complacency of middle-aged men. Roth claims that it’s a feminist tale, full of female empowerment in the face of the established patriarchy. That sometimes shines through, but more often than not Knock Knock is more concerned with its drawn out softcore-porn-meets-home-invasion plot that puts Keanu Reeves through the wringer.
Reeves plays Evan, a 43-year married man who, in a stunning coincidence, is also the same age as newly married writer-director Roth. Evan seems to have it all – a demanding but satisfying job as an architect, two towheaded kids and a stunning wife. There are fissures in the facade – his kids barge in on a moment of intimacy between him and his wife, and the rest of his family head for the beach shortly thereafter, leaving him alone on Father’s Day. Another interesting wrinkle is that it’s his more successful wife (a visual artist and sculptor) who paid for the sprawling glass house they live in, which inverts the usual gender roles and implies Evan is more of a traditionalist than he lets on, as he’s hiding some possible resentment.
Roth sets up a lots of threads in the early going, lingering on copious family pictures almost to the point of parody. Evan’s literally picture-perfect life is bound to crack (otherwise there’d be no movie) and the impetus comes in the form of two young coeds who show up at his door late at night, soaking wet and looking to use a phone. Genesis (Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s real-life wife) and Bel (Ana de Armas) are looking for a nearby party but can’t find a cab. They’re of indeterminate age but way too young for Evan, who in turn treats them with respect, letting them use his place to dry off and make a call.
Here’s where Knock Knock heats up, as the girls push hard against Evan, using flattery and the promise of sexual adventure to weaken his will and seduce him. The movie has fun with him and his character, subtly mocking the old man trying to seem hip as he shows off his vinyl to Bel (they don’t what records are) and the girls admire his well-appointed home. Reeves plays the square well, and Genesis and Bel’s read on him is bone-deep and correct – there’s an unhappiness in him that they can easily exploit. Evan, the ostensible protagonist, is mostly chivalrous until he gives in with gusto, committing the grave horror movie error of wanton infidelity.
In the aftermath of a torrid threesome the movie shifts to more traditional thriller territory, as Genesis and Bel begin a strange and prolonged psychological and physical torture of Evan. They punish him for his own weaknesses and seemingly much of mankind’s as well, espousing a twisted morality that’s rigid and clear in its goals – to take down people like Evan. Roth’s previous movies would lead you to expect some disturbing viscera, but here he pulls a lot of his punches, trying instead to get by on an admittedly thin story and weakly drawn characters.
Reeves gives it his all, clearly having fun with the role and taking the opportunity to go full Nic Cage. He shouts and screams, nearly frothing at the mouth in a few of his big scenes. It may seem like a step back during this renewed Reeves-renaissance (led in large part by the instantly classic John Wick), but he emerges unscathed, giving an admirable wacky performance in a movie that can’t match his energy.
Roth weaves in social media prevalence and generational differences well but Knock Knock never really clicks, especially as the torture drags on and it becomes clear he’s doing nothing new except withholding some of the more extreme violence. It’s also his most intentionally funny movie to date even though much of the humour seems warmed over. Credit where credit’s due though – it ends on a whopper of a line, nearly redeeming much of the previous 90 minutes. Eli Roth continues to prod and provoke but the question remains: is anybody listening?
Knock Knock (2015)
Directed by Eli Roth
Runtime: 99 minutes