What are we to do with Eli Roth, button-pusher extraordinaire and friend-of-Tarantino, who was crowned as the new king of the exploitation movie only to... not become so? Knock Knock is probably the smartest, smoothest, most polished of his features so far (though I haven't seen his infamous cannibal fest The Green Inferno). Is this a good thing?
The comfort of the production (shot in Chile with a local crew and Santiago passing itself as L. A.) and Roth's growing ease as a filmmaker is probably the one way you can measure his progress since the days of his under-achieving yet much-acclaimed debut Cabin Fever, all other things remaining equal. "All other things" being his taste for pushing the limits of what is acceptable in an exploitation movie while implicitly critiquing its voyeuristic appeal to the viewer. It's a trap you walk into eyes wide open: Roth gives you what you ostensibly came to see, then turns the tables on you by giving you way more than you expected and forcing you to question how much is too much, even as he keeps pushing more in your face.
Some see it as black comedy or satire pushed right out to the edge of discomfort, others as easy button-pushing moralizing; but the (im)plausibility of Knock Knock's set-up effectively hides the "knockout" (ahem) punch of its table-turning plot, bringing into play the issues of self-styled moral vigilantism in a contemporary world brought up on real-time reality television and self-deceiving fundamentalist piety while denouncing the ultimate hypocrisy that underlies the entire building.
In this beat-by-beat update of Peter Traynor's 1977 quickie cult Death Game, a well-off architect (Keanu Reeves) spending a long weekend working from home takes in two girls who knock on his door in a stormy night under pretense of being lost. They're no such thing; instead, Genesis and Bell (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) are self-appointed defenders of fundamentalist feminism out to punish and emasculate this particular male of the species as an example to all others who would... who would exactly what? Betray their well-off marriage by having a quick ride round the square with a younger, lustful girl? Use women as pure sexual objects with little regard for their intrinsic human qualities? See women as there just for the taking?
Genesis and Bell's motives are never properly justified, they're mere incarnations of evil out to entrap Evan into a honeypot that turns out to be a well-stocked torture chamber. Casting Reeves (looser and more at ease than we've seen him in years) is a great idea; having him ask himself whether he's doing the right thing before finally succumbing to the girls' insistence, then unleashing all hell upon an actor famous for playing a saviour in the Matrix films and an action hero in the Speed films makes it genius.
Ruthlessly twisting its knots as far as they'll go and beyond breaking point, Roth's film had me squirming on my seat throughout as these two nihilist female warriors with no redeeming qualities whatsoever torment and terrorize a man for making a mistake they practically forced him to make - in the process, he's pointing out the essentially manipulative nature of exploitation movies and restating his own need to critique it in the very same movement, making the viewer constantly aware of that manipulation and of the ways he is being manipulated.
But that doesn't at any point impinge on Roth's meticulously crafted ability to keep you on the edge of your seat, always wrapped in a glossy smugness that suggests some sort of underlying judgment and makes it difficult to truly "like" the film. It's almost as if Roth is both having its cake and eating it too at the expense of the viewer, whom it totally refuses to let go - you will notice none of his films has a comfortable, soothing ending, everything is just interrupted to restart at some later point, maybe with other victims. You've been exposed to a seedy side of things which you will now no longer be able to let go of - or that you will not be released by.
I think Knock Knock is a smart, well-made, questioning exploitation movie as well as I find it questionable and utterly detestable. And yet, here I am.
US, Chile, 2014, 100 minutes
Starring Keanu Reeves, Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas, Aaron Burns, Ignacia Allamand, Colleen Camp
Directed by Eli Roth; screenplay by Mr. Roth, Nicolás López and Guillermo Amoedo, from a story by Anthony Overman and Michael Ronald Ross; cinematographer Antonio Quercia (widescreen); music by Manuel Riveiro; production designer Marichi Palacios; costume designer Elisa Hormazábal; film editor Diego Macho Gómez; produced by Ms. Camp, Tim Degraye, Cassian Elwes, Mr. Roth, Mr. López and Miguel Asensio Llamas, for Dragonfly Entertainment, Sobras International Pictures and Camp Grey Productions in association with Elevated Films and Black Bear Pictures
Screened November 1st 2015, Lisbon