After making a name for himself as cinema's reigning king of torture porn, Eli Roth finally tries something a little different with Knock Knock (billed as an “erotic thriller”). That's the good news. The bad news is that this time he's decided to make something that feels like the paranoid fantasy of a Men's Rights Activist. It's never scary, erotic or suspenseful, but it's certainly provocative. Think of it as Problematic: The Motion Picture.
The film – a loose remake of the 1977 feature Death Game - tells the story of Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix), a middle-aged architect who's happily married to a successful artist named Karen (Ignacia Allamand, The Green Inferno). They have two adorable children (Dan and Megan Bailey) together, and their life is more or less a picturesque portrait of suburban bliss. Okay, so Evan and Karen's sex life has entered something of a dry spell lately, but otherwise, things are fine.
Shortly after Karen and the kids take off on a weekend trip out-of-state, something unusual happens: two attractive young women show up at Evan's doorstep. The introduce themselves as Genesis (Roth's wife Lorenza Izzo, Aftershock) and Bel (Ana de Armas), and claim that they got lost on their way to a party. It's pouring down rain outside, so Evan reluctantly lets them come inside to dry off. Within a few minutes, the girls are making increasingly aggressive flirtatious advances, which makes Evan increasingly uncomfortable. By the time he decides to ask them to leave, they've already got his pants down.
I won't get into the specific details of precisely what these girls are up to, but suffice it to say that this whole scenario isn't quite what it seems and that some nasty surprises are in store for Evan. Initially, it feels like a simple morality tale about the consequences of cheating, but quickly becomes something much uglier. What bothers me about the way the film's second half plays out is not the crude extremity of the content (again, almost everything we're actually shown is mild by Roth standards), but how much of it serves as a cinematic reinforcement of the most common defense made by men accused of rape: “She was asking for it, your honor.” No, the two women in the film aren't representative of all women... and yet, it's funny how neatly they line up with the ugliest, most paranoid accusations that a lot of dudes on the internet – you know, the ones who put “Anti-P.C. and Anti-SJW” in their Twitter bio – like to hurl at women.
Admittedly, this sort of fretful concern is precisely the sort of reaction Roth seems to be going for. He knows that he's playing with fire, and that Knock Knock is going to repulse a lot of people. He doesn't want everyone to love his movies... in fact, he seems to need a certain number of people to hate his movies, in order to make them more appealing to the people who love them. In that sense, this film in the same category as a lot of his other stuff, though he's using a fairly different sort of shock value this time around. He also invites a lot of psychological speculation with how much of his own life he puts into the film: Reeves is playing a character who's 43 years old (the same age Roth was at the time of the film's release), the character is married to a younger Chilean woman (just like Roth) and Roth's real-life wife plays a role that requires her to engage in a lot of sexually explicit behavior with Reeves. Is Roth asking questions about himself? Or merely hoping that critics will overreach and ask questions like, “is Roth asking questions about himself?”
The thing that makes all of this so frustrating is that, on a certain level, Knock Knock has a number of genuine virtues. There's a great extended early sequence that finds Keanu playing an uncomfortable game of musical chairs with the girls: they move in and get all hands-y with him, he moves to another seat, they move in, he moves again, etc. Reeves himself does interesting work, playing a likably off-center everyman early on and successfully capturing the character's building confusion and rage (also, his furious “IT WAS FREE PIZZA!” monologue is a magnificent bit of overacting). Nobody would mistake Izzo or De Armas for great thespians, but they at least deserve credit for committing to the (contrived, stereotypical, unconvincing) roles they've been asked to play.
I'm not sure if it's fortunate or unfortunate that the film doesn't really have the nerve to follow through on the bleak promises it makes, but regardless, Knock Knock does indeed deflate the dark impact of the story it tells with a trite, flippant ending that wraps things up with a dumb sight gag, an equally dumb one-liner and Pixies' “Where is My Mind” (a pretty bold bit of theft from Fight Club). Like a lot of the “erotic thrillers” it draws inspiration from (Fatal Attraction chief among them), the film is ultimately a cheap exploitation of irrational male fears, albeit a much uglier one than anything Adrian Lynne ever made. It's “well made,” I guess. I more or less hated it, though that probably qualifies as a rave for this film's target audience.
Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 100 minutes
Release Year: 2015