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The purpose of a knock knock joke is to offer a pun or an alternative word-use in a call-and-response format. The setup creates one direction and the teller then misdirects. Going into Knock Knock, the latest from director Eli Roth, there is an expectation that this will be nothing more than a slasher film with a big name (which is a popular trend in horror movies these days) and in a sense does set up the call part of a “joke”. While it lacks the graphic gore of some of his earlier work, it does aim to deliver on the eponymous name’s format but the telling fails to give it any weight.
It begins with a long, slow shot as we approach the modern and expensive home of architect Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves), his wife Karen (Ignacia Allamand) and two young children. Once inside, the camera follows a path through the pristine art and lavish architecture where an almost gratuitous amount of family portraits, which all seem taken on or around the same day, hang about the house. They are everywhere on every wall and on every surface and we are made to see them all. The shot feels purposeful. Indeed, it will not be the last time we travel along this very same path.
We enter Evan and Karen’s bedroom where the two are engaged in some light physical foreplay when, naturally, the kids enter freely and jump on the bed carrying a cake and a gift to celebrate Father’s Day. It all seems a little precise, orchestrated, and exact. That morning, Karen takes the kids on a weekend beach trip, leaving Evan at home to work. He spends the evening listening to vinyl on his expensive turntable and sits at his computer while filling a pot pipe. This is content man. Handsome and wealthy with a much younger successful wife, two lovely children, a beautiful home, and a pet dog all make for a self-contained shiny little package. A shot from outside his window is the first clue things are about to change.
A knock at the front door surprises Evan, who, when hearing it, seems genuinely confused. Outside are two very young women, Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas), drenched, claiming they are lost, looking for a house party but given the wrong address. Evan invites them in to use the internet and then arranges an Uber driver to pick them up. With forty-five minutes to wait, the girls ask if they can dry their clothes. Evan agrees, offering them robes and making them tea. The three engage in some light conversation as the women continually swing the talk into sexual themes. They flirt, they touch, they tease. Evan distances himself as they push further, keeping him on edge. They are open and reveal they are airline attendants, love sex and seem intent on seducing him. He thinks he has power to refuse.
Comedian Chris Rock once said that a man is only as faithful as his options, and that a man can stop chasing sex but if it chases him it’s going to catch him. Evan is being chased by two highly adept girls with a sure-thing strategy. Bit by bit they warm up to him, enclose upon him like predators, and weaken every ounce of resolve. We must wonder, as surely Roth intends, given the same situation, what would we do? That is the real power of the opening. And it’s these early moments that are the film’s best. Roth does a good job of building tension. Like sex, it’s all about the foreplay. The teasing of the inevitable is achingly effective as the two attractive girls effortlessly play into Evan’s desire, even if he doesn’t want to join. But of course he eventually relents, and the three engage in a threesome that is powerfully satisfying for Evan. But completely changes their dynamic.
Up to this point, Knock Knock has been a quiet bit of intrigue. Even the sex is reserved and while there is nudity, not gratuitous. It has an air of serendipity, and while no one watching thinks it’s going to end well, there is a hope the girls have not set out to be bad. This all changes the following morning as the girls finally reveal their true identities and intent. To say they the new day has brought about a change in their personalities is an understatement of dangerous proportions. The transformation is shocking and like many films in this genre, where men fall under the spell of extremely sketchy women, the implications are clear.
And this is where the film loses its traction. The girls, who are wonderfully playful yet deliciously deceiving in the early moments morph into over-blown, deeply distracting caricatures by the penultimate moment that it ruins completely the solid opening premise. More like cartoon characters than troubled girls, the women spend more time acting like zany maniacs than using the opportunity to truly create a powerful message about an issue that is only momentarily alluded to and treated more like a throw away excuse than a serious concern. Reeves however is a strange mix of very convincing to oddly flat, screaming dialog that is weirdly comical when it feels like it shouldn’t be. Echoing Nicolas Cage screaming “Not the bees!“, Reeves shouting “I’m a good father!” is hard to watch and not snicker at.
Given all that, and despite the sheer lunacy in how it arrives at its finale, the conclusion is a refreshing and highly disturbing surprise that nearly makes the middle act worth the trip. Leading us down one path and abruptly shifting lanes works well having an impact that is genuinely effective and hints at what a truly terrifying psychological horror film this should have been. Roth has a great eye for storytelling and his slow, methodically tracking is a nice turn away from the usual scattershot blisteringly fast cuts of most thriller films. Reeves has never been a truly convincing dramatic actor and his performance here is partly reason why it doesn’t work. While his style is much more suited for action, the necessity for emotion in this role should have meant casting someone different as Evan. Disappointing given the amazing trailer and fun premise, Knock Knock is a missed opportunity.