by Philip Price
Expectations are never high for anything from the notorious Eli Roth. Roth, whose most recent picture I was witness to only a few weeks ago in “The Green Inferno,” was a delayed bit of intrigue that turned out to be little more than a traditional gore-fest without any substance. And so, when his latest comes down the pipeline and features a rejuvenated Keanu Reeves (“John Wick” really helped that guy’s rep) you want to be interested. When you hear that the film was adapted from a 1977 film called “Death Game” that featured Colleen Camp (who makes a cameo appearance here) you also want to be hopeful. Still, the story is rather familiar and there isn't much of a reason to believe that Roth will necessarily bring anything new to the ‘Fatal Attraction’-table. That said, there are plenty of interesting ideas at play here and by the end of the film I'd developed something of a respect for the filmmaker for at least attempting to say something about the generational differences in with which sex, sexuality and the sanctity of marriage are viewed. Like any film that touches on such subjects and has been made by someone with enough perspective to know that love can be the only genuine thing we have in this world and that sex as presented by popular culture is largely a world of fantasy there are hard facts to be dealt with and bold statements to be made. While the tide of whose side we're on is continually turning in this psychological thriller, the thing the film lacks that might make it all the more compelling is a certain slyness. It's all about the way something is said rather than what is necessarily being said and Roth has a way of being so blunt and on the nose that it undermines the poignancy of what he seems to want to say. Still, the movie plays out with such inherent intensity that it's hard to look away or not find many of the elements entertaining if not on a something of a disturbing level. The progression of the mind games that our two female leads endow Reeves character with are up to par with any seasoned antagonist, but Roth's inability to remain restrained makes for a finale that screams the movie’s ideas at our faces rather than chillingly delivering a question that individual audience members might be afraid to answer about themselves.
We begin this journey into expectation versus reality by meeting Evan Webber (Reeves), a loving family man with a beautiful wife (Ignacia Allamand) and two children (Dan and Megan Bailey). It is when two young women show up at his door in skimpy outfits and drenched by the rain that the movie asks how devoted he'll be able to remain? That’s the question Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas) intend to find out the answer to in “Knock Knock.” The set-up is that it’s Father’s Day and Evan’s wife and kids have planned a trip to the beach, but seeing as he has to stay home and work he will have the house to himself. This doesn't seem to be an issue, in fact Evan will likely get a lot more done with the kids out of the house, but of course this is when Genesis and Bel show up. Initially under the impression that the girls got caught in the rain and just need to make a phone call for a ride home, Evan soon comes to realize they’ve got much bigger plans for him.
The most attractive aspect of “Knock Knock” is that it purports to be a thinking person's thriller in terms of style and repercussions. It doesn't present characters in a one-dimensional sense, but rather strives to give a fully formed portrait of our three main characters. We may initially believe that Evan is generally a good guy who makes a single bad choice and we may initially believe that both Genesis and Bel are nothing more than psychopaths looking to get a rouse out of this random target, but the layers are nicely peeled back to reveal much more. Screenwriters Nicolás López and Guillermo Amoedo are sure to not necessarily give motivation or backstory to either Genesis or Bel, but when it comes to reasoning we get a dialogue-heavy set that spells out every point the two girls stand to make a statement about. When the film plays it coy, such as when Bel divulges a backstory about how what we assume was about her step-father raping her, its darkly disturbing and plays with the many possibilities of why these two young ladies have come around to performing the acts they do in order to prove what they believe they knew all along. With Genesis and Bel in particular we are given a glimpse into psyches of not only females, but females of a certain generation that have dealt with higher divorce rates and being exploited as little more than sexual objects in the media. Unfortunately, women seem to be taken advantage of in more ways than men could ever imagine in our society and in many ways Genesis and Bel are on a mission to rectify that treatment by exposing how men, no matter how well put-together or pre-packaged they may be, are all the same on a basic human level. When you put two young women in skimpy outfits drenched by the rain at their front door the outcome is always the same.
What takes away from these big steps in the right direction is simply the lack of a competent tone. It's as if the film wants to go for something of a deranged attitude that is both wacky in its actions yet serious about its themes and Roth is unable to ever strike a balance between the two. It doesn't help that it's next to impossible to take Reeves' performance seriously. There are moments, especially as the film builds to its climax where the girls play a demented game show with Evan, that the actor is little more than laughable. Reeves is required to have something of a full-on breakdown and while the guy is certainly giving it his all it's impossible not to crack. While it is easy to see what Roth was going for in presenting Reeves as this traditional hero type, but turning those expectations on their head so as to get the bigger point across the film instead ends up cheapening itself. Izzo and De Armas on the other hand are terrific in their idealistic, but perverted roles. Genesis and Bel come onto Evan presenting these kinds of ideas that Evan's generation have of the generation just below them: that since they've grown up with internet pornography that this kind of no strings attached sex, threesomes and bi-sexuality are no big deal. The girls play into this idea they know Evan has of them before they even speak a word and catch him in this scenario they believe no guy can resist. Of course, on the other side of things is the argument that Evan will have had no choice, that the girls basically forced him into sleeping with them and no matter how true this is there is no defense for Evan or any guy when the girls ask him, "Why didn't you think of them (his family) when you were inside of us?"
It's a blunt, but shockingly honest way of approaching things and highlights what is also one of the more enjoyable aspects of the film in that will undoubtedly make many squirm. While the tactics may not exactly be fair, the questions are and I like that Roth, his writers and the majority of his cast are able to pull off this kind of switch in what we see and what we expect as opposed to the substance behind our presumed shallowness. If only Roth were able to take those ideas and themes and convey them in a feature that was a little more subtle in its approach and a little more refined in their technique than we might have had something truly juicy to devour here. Instead, the characters squeeze these juicy ideas dry before we can ever make it to them to try and get a drink. The good intentions are here, but the ability to execute effectively still seems to allude a director whose strong suit has never been his subtlety. In the end, “Knock Knock” is an entertaining film that will make for a fun, campy night on the couch, but falls short of having any real ambition or shining as bright as it could have mainly because of its biggest star.