Written by: Eli Roth, Nicolás López, and Guillermo Amoedo
Directed by: Eli Roth
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, and Ana de Armas
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"We have to punish you!"
Arriving as a change of pace for Eli Roth, Knock Knock finds the splat pack godfather foregoing his typical brand of xenophobic, gore-soaked horror. Having spent most of the past decade making life miserable for Americans who dare to travel abroad, Roth turns his attention here to fostering domestic misery quite literally. Here’s a movie that insists that trouble won’t just find you—sometimes, it walks right up to your doorstep and wears a seductive face. Sometimes, trouble starts out like a Playboy letter that soon goes horribly awry.
In the case of Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves)—a happily married, super handsome architect with two kids—trouble arrives rather innocuously. Stranded at home on Father’s Day and forced to work while his family visits the beach, the night unfolds quietly enough until the doorbell rings. Since he expects no visitors, Evan is doubly surprised to open the door to two beautiful twentysomethings (Lorenza Izzo & Ana de Armas) who have been stranded out in the middle of a raging thunderstorm. Lost on their way to a party, Genesis and Bel ask to come inside and get the bearings. Unable to say no, terminally nice guy Evan obliges. He soon learns that he really, really should not oblige, as these two are not what they appear to be.
Perhaps in an effort to move out of his gut-stained comfort zone, Eli Roth confidently helms this slick, black-hearted erotic thriller that owes more to Paul Verhoeven than it does Sam Raimi. Remarkably, this still means that Knock Knock is relatively restrained (and even toned down) by Roth’s standards. While you catch whiffs of his trademark glibness throughout (and the occasional, full-on absurd outburst), this is low key compared to the likes of, say, The Green Inferno, which stopped just short of having a character shit their brains out. Physical peril has been Roth’s domain, but he turns an eye towards the psychological here with twisted mind games (it turns out that maybe these two aren’t twentysomethings after all) and manipulation. Roth’s films often have an audience just how far he’ll go in terms of physical torture; this one brings the understated but disturbing psychology of the Hostel films to the forefront by having the audience wonder just how deranged this duo is.
As it turns out, there’s the deep end—and then there’s wherever the hell Genesis and Bel are. Knock Knock is operating from a delicate position as trash, tabloid cinema since it’s inviting its audience to gawk at a family man having his life turned upside-down. Given some of our most popular forms of entertainment, watching other people’s lives fall apart is something that’s almost cathartic—we find a twisted pleasure in watching this sort of thing, and Roth must sense this. His decision to craft a couple of compelling psychos that you can’t easily dismiss is a clever acknowledgement, and Izzo and de Armas take the ball and run with it, in some cases going so far as to run right off of the court. I spent an unexpected amount of time enjoying watching these two completely destroy a perfectly decent man’s life because their insanity is infectious. That’s something.
In a complete turnabout from her role in The Green Inferno, Izzo has discarded the meek, unassuming undergrad persona in favor of a loquacious, sexually charged jezebel. Of the two, she’s something of the ringleader, at least in the sense that she provides some semblance of a motivation, however morally twisted it may be. De Armas, on the other hand, is completely unhinged in perhaps the most disconcerting way possible. Let’s just say it’s not hard to see how Evan falls under the spell of this temptress before she channels her ingénue energy into a perverse Lolita fantasy. Roth’s screenplay takes her character to a warped headspace, and de Armas relishes it in such a way that she somehow remains endearing even as she’s conspiring to kill Evan. Knock Knock is more enjoyable than it has any right to be thanks to its two nubile maniacs, whose disturbing behavior retains an impishness no matter how dark or gruesome it is.
Roth’s casting of Reeves is also a coup. Essentially acting as a shorthand to emphasize what a decent guy Evan is, Reeves’s amiable personality is concentrated into a peak Cool Dad performance. The film can’t seem to stress enough just how perfect his life is; what’s more, there’s not even any indication that he’s the sort of scumbag that might deserve whatever happens to him. He actually is a generally good guy who just makes the mistake of running into two girls who are terminally DTF. This is not to excuse his behavior but simply to note that he is someone you want to see survive this ordeal, an important distinction that keeps the film from degenerating into simply gawking at the wreckage from a horrible trainwreck.
Knock Knock is genuinely suspenseful as a result, particularly during the early-going, when Evan engages in some idle small talk with the girls before they come onto him. As he waits for their ride to arrive, he fidgets about the room, nervously evading their advances, and it’s unnerving in a way Roth’s films usually aren’t. For once, he doesn’t need to blowtorch someone’s eyes to inspire squirming—all it takes here is Reeves’s anxious glances at the Uber app on his phone. As the seemingly interminable 45-minute wait counts down, you can feel his defenses cracking; you need that car to pull up and rescue him from a situation that escalates from awkward to ominous, chiefly because he’s Keanu Reeves and you do not want to see bad things happen to Keanu Reeves.
As such, his eventual outburst—which explodes after he endures torture and witnesses a murder (this is an Eli Roth movie after all)—casts the film in sharp relief. “It was free pizza!” he retorts the girls who have chosen to punish him for the infidelity they lured him into. While this ludicrous signature line has some camp appeal, there’s a crucial kernel of truth to it: sure, this tryst is ultimately self-inflicted, but it’s not as if Genesis and Bel aren’t complicit. When they subject Evan to a demented game show as punishment, it’s akin to a cop being able to serve as judge, jury, and execution even after he’s been convicted of entrapment. As weirdly delightful as these two are, their morals are a flimsy pretense to justify their lust to punish.
With these two, I can’t help but wonder if Roth is picking up his own thread from The Green Inferno and poking fun at 21st century interactions. Genesis and Bel are perpetual outrage machines, capable of manufacturing drama, entrapping a victim, and then severely punishing them—it’s not unlike the cycles that play out regularly over social networks. Even the method of retribution here ultimately takes the form of public shaming—in the end, the worst thing Evan could endure is to watch helplessly as outraged comments pile up on a damning Facebook post. Perhaps more than any other filmmaker, Roth has figured out what truly horrifies us. Not bad for a guy whose debut film featured a kid performing kung-fu while screaming about pancakes.
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