I know the post is a little late, but at least I managed to watch these films on Halloween.
Although Knock Knock hardly shakes up provocateur Eli Roth’s outré sensibilities beyond comparison, it actually manages to reinvigorate, even regenerate, a shtick that felt degenerative even before his first film ended and it had a chance to degenerate properly. A perverse pornographic mishap from the mind of a man whose films have always tried to slash and burn with rhythmic recklessness and only ever achieved a state of sickly, jaundiced quasi-nihilism before, Knock Knock is a twisted-screw, spiked-vodka put-down of milquetoast masculinity and the crusty veneer of suburban civilization we erect around ourselves. It’s an off-off-off-Broadway morality play that doubles as a knife to the gut of the morality play high horse. Knock Knock is as low as it gets, gleefully thrashing around in the filth whilst more or less mocking our presumption that we, and director Roth for that matter, are better than it all. Even if we criticize his film, Roth knows we’re watching with fetish-like interest, and for him, that’s 80% of the battle.
If the logline about home invasion thrillers is their cat-and-mouse proclivities, then this film draws more from Tom and Jerry – even Itchy and Scratchy – than any domesticated feline friend you’ve ever owned. The film’s diabolical twitch begins with a half-film rev-up where wealthy LA type Evan (Keanu, as game as ever) is confronted with two lost youths, Genesis (Lorezno Izzo) and Bel (Ana De Armas), both of the middle-aged-man’s-dream’s variety. Eventually, he’s tempted beyond the pale of normalcy (or perhaps toward acknowledging his human, animal normalcy after all) and things go from bad to worse when the nubile, exotic creatures coerce him into extramarital sex and mutate from ingenues into Venus fly traps into plot devices and rhetorical strategies for mocking Evan’s presumption of superiority.
Roth has expended his early days mocking well-to-do American tourists and their gross, Orientalist assumptions that the outside world is their playground willing to sit by for their use-value. Yet Knock Knock, which returns to the home-front, is somehow even more assertive in that it reflects the “others” of the world invading and clawing at us from within the safety of our own homes. Which isn’t not problematic, and the screenplay stumbles when it attempts to pave over its disreputability by having Evan preach a little about his own misguided moral philosophy. The screenplay attempts to paint over its inherent misogyny by baiting Evan with his own blind belief in intelligent design (the secularized, capitalist variety inherent to American politics and descended from Protestantism – read your Weber, children – where individuals – the modern God and worship object in American corporate folklore – control their choices). Which is to say that the film plainly wishes for a minute or two for us to blame Evan for his actions because he believes that all actions are the result of our own choices, only to double-back when threatened and claim that he had no choice but to accept the “free pizza” of sexual intercourse from the girls.
Unfortunately, the film’s commitment to this added texture is half-hearted and compulsory at best. It never actually achieves the appeal of a self-nuancing oven – baking middle-age male fantasies to a boiling point and then critiquing itself for doing so – since the film’s “Evan is just as bad as them” nihilism never exactly reprimands the actually over-flowing misogyny of the film itself. (For the sake of argument, even if Evan was as immoral as the two girls, treating everyone’s faults equally isn’t exactly a recipe for equality in a society that responds to the faults of women more than men). Knock Knock never transcends its basest impulses, not by a long shot; its middle-class, midlife-crisis investigation is more spirited than actually provocative, in other words.
That said, Roth’s film is gleeful even at its worst, especially since his willingness to indulge his pitch black humor impulse as well as his horror fixation also excites his formal understanding of cinema into overdrive for once. While Hostel was more concept than formal feature, Knock Knock actually suggests Roth having fun in the act of making a movie – rather than merely thinking up an idea for a movie – for once. The film enjoins itself to a devil’s night of fun tracing the impossibly modernistic, white-washed, quasi-liberal interior space of Evan’s not-quite-bachelor pad, a modernism courtesy of faux-abstract, faux-ethnic art from his loving wife who has absconded with children in tow to the beach for the weekend. The chestnuts of terror and desire linger beneath the we’re-upper-middle-class-and-white-so-we-have-floor-to-ceiling-windows. And the terror, for once, is inextricably tied to Roth’s willingness to unchain his camera and corkscrew around the nebulous halls of this luxury abode like a shark hunting for middlebrow prey. And when the girls go to town not only on Evan but on his belongings, the production designer has a field day spilling filth all over his carefully cultivated mise-en-scene. Not a good film, but it’s certainly Roth’s most film-drunk work yet.