Knocking review – strong direction and a great lead performance elevate a so-so thriller

Knocking review – strong direction and a great lead performance elevate a so-so thriller

After suffering a nervous breakdown and enduring a stay in a psychiatric ward, Molly (Cecilia Milocco) is finally back out in the real world. It’s a slow process, but things are looking up. But just when Molly starts to get settled in to her new pad, she starts hearing an odd noise. It seems innocuous at first — just a slight knocking — but soon the sound is paired with more concerning things like stomps and yells. Molly recognizes this as the audio of potential trauma, and takes it upon herself to find its source. But is she really hearing this thing, or is she just “hearing things?”

Knocking is far from the first movie to spend its runtime questioning the sanity of its protagonist, giving the audience every reason to suspect an unreliable narrator, all while withholding answers until the very last minute. It’s a smart play that can also be a narrative liability if it’s not managed well. In the case of Knocking, the slow-burn application of this plot device is alternately compelling and frustrating. Compelling because of the powerhouse lead performance. Frustrating because even at 78 minutes, the film is repetitive to a fault.

The bulk of the plot consists of Molly approaching various avenues for help in identifying the rogue sound and getting rebuffed. She contacts the superintendent/landlord, her neighbors, and even the police, but none are able to help her (and few are willing). At each inquiry, we at home are made to wonder if she’s making something out of nothing, or if the authoritative powers that be are choosing to ignore a valid concern. This is exactly the type of thematic material that feels right at home here in the present day, where were still unsure of how to handle large claims made by potential victims of abuse. Where the thematic structure is weakened is that Molly has little to report but a knocking sound. It doesn’t take a hardcore misogynist to dismiss Molly’s claims, but I get the sense that the film wants us to judge the patriarchal powers that refuse to hear her plight.

It’s not a terribly big leap to assume that a character like Molly is telling the truth — most proposed victims are — but the way Knocking unfolds it does not allow for as taut an ambiguity as it aims for. If we knew the source of the sound up front, dramatic irony could really pull the film together as a thriller and drive home the idea that Molly is being sidelined by the system. Conversely, if we were clued into Molly’s mental state in a more concrete way, it could become a study of her character’s struggle with mental health. As it stands, Knocking goes for both, resulting in dual narratives that undercut one another while straining to maintain a weak mystery. It’s not until the end that we get any sort of clarity as to what is causing Molly’s distress, or through what lens she’s having this experience, and even then it’s just not enough to recontextualize the preceding film in the way it seems to want me to.

Even though Knocking comes up a bit short in story, and fails to introduce a new angle to a creaky concept, it’s very well-made in terms of craft. The way that paranoia creeps into every composition is evocative of early Aronofsky, and on a scene-by-scene basis the editing is impeccable. Even if, like me, you find the plot/story to be frustrating, there’s plenty of value to be had in absorbing the fine directorial work of Frida Kempff. It’s not easy to make a slow-burn freak-out flick without falling into cartoonish traps, but Kempff gives her film a realism and a level of class that makes for consistent dread. If you’re into cinema as an exercise in tone management, you’ll want to seek this out.

Knocking is based on a novel by Johan Theorin (adapted by Emma Broström), and as is typically the case with so-so filmic adaptations, I’m inspired to hunt it down and give it a read.

Directed by Frida Kempff

Written by Emma Broström, Johan Theorin

Starring Ceceilia Milocco, Albin Grenholm, Ville Virtanen, Krister Kern

Runtime 78 minutes

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