There comes a point in Knock Knock where Keanu Reeves’ daggy architect protagonist Evan, playing host to a pair of innocent-seeming flight stewardesses (Lorenza Izzo, Ana de Armas), breaks out his vinyl collection and waxes lyrical about what it takes to be a great DJ. Amid the panicked flashbacks to We Are Your Friends is what I’m assured from a trusted source1 is a mildly accurate metaphor: it’s like mixing a great drink, in that it’s finding the ingredients and putting them together in a way that feels right.2 The same could be said of director Eli Roth, a horror auteur most fondly assessed by the variety of his horror samplings than the allegorical statements he purports them to be. Whether Hostel or The Green Inferno properly examine their antagonistic forces (foreign terrorism and starry-eyed environmental activism) is up for debate, the strains of their genre forebears (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Cannibal Holocaust) are cranked up enjoyably loud, quite unlike a later scene in Knock Knock, where Evan is bound to a chair and forced to listen to his personal canon at ear-splitting levels.
Understanding why he is in this situation (though not why he doesn’t just shake the headphones off, in one of several leaps made to keep things going) reveals what goes into the Knock Knock cocktail. In making the B-movie premise their own, Roth and his cohorts (largely Chilean as part of the independent production) make something that is part bunny-boiling sex thriller, part porn scenario gone far off the deep end, and crucial-part showcase for Reeves’ impossible-to-be-overstated affability. Plot-wise, it adheres very closely to the model of ’70s sexploitation trip Death Game, in which two giddy teenage girls sleep with an older man and then blackmail him with statutory rape charges. These modern knock-knockers show up at his door on a rainy night, and with the wife and kids gone for the weekend, Evan lets them in to dry off and wait for an Uber, which is far enough away for them to wile their way into a thunder-scored ménage à trois behind a steam-fogged shower screen.
Under dialogue penned by Roth and others, the whole situation feels like a dramatised hypothetical from leery sex-ed students, especially since Bel and Genesis are less master manipulators than horrific little shits to Reeve’s naive substitute teacher, the pouty “daddy’s little angel” attitude seems to be the defining character traits. Make no mistake: Reeves is the reason that the smutty, hysteria-driven plot works at all. A mere photo of him cuddling a puppy in the film’s opening glide-through of his family’s luxurious California mansion is enough to win us over before he even acts, and if there was still any excuse to respond to that with “but he doesn’t act, he’s so wooden” after last year’s blissfully surprising John Wick, watching him interact with his kids should pack that away forever. It’s not that he goes chameleon with his dopey dad character, but that he harnesses his hippy-haired persona into something so confidently daggy that seeing his innocence wither (peaking with a monologue likening a woman’s proposition to free pizza) is almost crushing. Everyone else in the cast swings in his orbit, from Izzo and de Armas’ wild children to Evan’s high-flying assistant Louis (Aaron Burns) and even a gabby masseuse (Colleen Camp) who forces him to hide his indiscretion.
Floating establishing shots of the Valley kinder that domestic caution typical of The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and other ’90s potboilers, which leads one to wonder how this kind of mid-budget fare has to go to Santiago to film, rather than through the American studios that once knew how to sell it. It’s not like Roth has such a contentious personal statement to make. The sharpest barb on show is in his use of the two antagonists as literal tools for the destruction of the art establishment: turning Evan’s wife’s odd sculptures into dust, precociously cracking wise at her field’s expense (“which way to MOMA?” quips one as they hide a wrapped and painted bit of evidence to their rampage), and drawing graffiti everywhere in a thudding symbol for how easily fettered the contemporary liberal art scene is. Similarly, Evan’s own creative past as a DJ is turned on him in the manner mentioned above, but the hilarious impracticability of the situation hems it in with every other brash element.
It’s trash, without a doubt, yet with such little screen time dedicated to the sex in the film’s logline, the main spectacle is seeing a good man unravel like twine, and Reeves is more than up for the job. Izzo and de Armas lean hard into their act as well, but it’s one much more heavily prescribed to them by their giddy director, leaving no sense of either party meeting their match. The film ends with a one sad man in a sad plight, Roth failing to elucidate any real feminist sentiment in the last stretch. Rather than a low-budget knock-off of Haneke’s Funny Games, Roth’s latest feels strictly like an absurd gauntlet of punishment, lacking any tangible sense of itself. Though amusing excess propels the film through to its ancillary ending, the film is hurt by Roth’s weakly constructed social satire. In the end, the only real winner here is Reeves, who saunters out of the mess fresher than pine.
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