Tuesday, November 28, 2017
WINTER OF DISCONTENT: Knock Knock
Cinema, at its best, has thrown itself unstoppably against the immovability of the biggest questions. Some directors spend their entire career focused on one question or thematic concern. For Sam Peckinpah, it was what happens when men of a certain mindset outlive their times while stubbornly refusing to change. For Michael Mann, the terrible cost to be paid when one ceases to be true to oneself.
Other directors step outside their usual aesthetic playbook to create a one-off distillation of something so utterly profound that the effect is unforgettable: take Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ikiru’ – not a samurai in sight, but a cumulatively beautiful and emotionally shattering meditation on how, in the face of death, one can undertake a single act that proves one’s life had purpose.
In ‘Knock Knock’, Eli Roth squares up – utilising every creative and cerebral nuance in his directorial paintbox – to that thorniest of existential dilemmas, to whit: Is the destruction of one’s home, the ruination of one’s marriage, the tarring of one’s reputation, the abject humiliation of the self, and the possible loss of one’s life worth it for a threesome with Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas?
By the final frame, I’m not sure that Roth wouldn’t come down on the side of shag-a-thon and the hell with the torture porn that follows. Hell, what’s torture porn but normal porn wth a little more in the way of pain? Roth would probably take a night of debauchery and marching songs with Prussian Blue and happily let them tie him up and carve a swastika into his willy the next morning and pour Wild Turkey over the wound. I can imagine him chugging a celebratory beer and asking them to do it again.
All of which is a 300-word way of saying that Roth’s enthusiasm in directing ‘Knock Knock’ is roughly akin to Oliver Reed being offered the job of Chief Quality Control Officer at Talisker distillery or Keith Richard winning a lifetime’s supply of cocaine and doing every fucking molecule of it in first 48 hours.
Here’s another thing about ‘Knock Knock’: after four films that are basically unofficial remakes (or rather greatest hits packages) of the films Roth grew up loving, this is his first official remake: of Peter S. Traynor’s 1977 sexploitation classic starring Sondra Locke and Colleen Camp. Camp cameos in a splendid comedy-of-embarrassments scene, while she and Locke act as producers. I’ve taken the piss out of Roth routinely in these pages but, with all sincerity, props to the guy for seeking Locke’s and Camp’s blessing in taking on the material.
And while I’m holding my hands up here, I’ll come right out with it: ‘Knock Knock’ is the first film in the Roth canon that I’ve straight up enjoyed. Granted, it’s no classic – one can easily imagine Jag Mahendra turning in a slightly less polished version of it in the mid-1980s with Shannon Whirry and Delia Sheppard – but it sees Roth freeing himself from those late-1990s “future of horror” expectations, working with a genuine A-list star (Keanu Reeves), and gifted with the most dementedly sexy double act imaginable courtesy of Izzo and de Armas. It’s no coincidence that the best scenes are where Roth simply points the camera at his leading ladies and lets them play off each other in the most deliciously nasty way.
A robot could probably have directed this film and got away with it, that’s how memorable Izzo and de Armas are. I can only describe what they achieve onscreen as being as if Rodney Bewes and James Bolam in ‘The Likely Lads’ or Ronnie Barker and Richard Beckinsale in ‘Porridge’ were Lolita-esque jailbait.
Here’s the basic premise, if you haven’t second-guessed it already: Evan (Reeves) is a successful architect, happily married to an artist, Karen (Ignacio Allamand), who is about to get her first big exhibition. Karen takes their kids for a weekend away while Evan finishes work on a major commission. In the time honoured tradition of architects everywhere, he rolls a skinny, works late into the night and blasts out 70s rock. (In fairness, I only know one architect, but let’s just say that his working practices are significantly different to Evan’s.) Halfway through looking at an onscreen graphic – Roth seems unaware of how CAD actually operates – he’s disturbed by a knock at the door and – … wait a fucking minute, he’s a successful architect living in a detached piece of architecture in a suburb that has “white entitlement” written all over it and the cunt doesn’t have a fucking doorbell?
Okay. So. No-doorbell-cunt answers the knock – it’s pissing it down with rain – and finds Genesis (Izzo) and Bel (de Armas) on his doorstep, soaked through and asking for shelter from the rain. Which, being a decent guy, he gives them. And being a decent guy, he books an Uber for them. And being a decent guy he dries off their sodden clothes in his tumble-dryer. And being a decent guy he gives them dressing gowns to wear. And being a decent guy he acts all flustered when their behaviour demonstrates that they are confident in their sexuality.
And, finally, being basically a bloke and incapable of thinking through anything but his dick when half-his-age poontang is on offer, he conveniently compartmentalises his wife and kids and his sense of morality and, for want of a subtler phrase, goes at it like a butcher’s dog.
Waking the next morning to the post-coital equivalent of buyer’s remorse, and none too impressed that Genesis and Bel are making themselves a little too intimately at home, he finds himself having to jump through a number of hoops just to get them out of his house. He then gets busy eradicating every shred of evidence that they were ever there, little knowing that the games have only just begun.
Roth keeps the 100 minutes of ‘Knock Knock’ moving at an admirable clip. He turns up the heat on the erotic elements, only to go all abstract in the way he films the big shagging scene. He monkeys with the home invasion scenario in seeming to have Evan rid himself of the threat. And, when he sets the scene for the final half hour or so, the expected torture porn tropes are abandoned in favour of pure black comedy in which the surreal restaging of a popular gameshow stands in for the blood-letting of the ‘Hostel’ films and a wrongly “liked” Facebook post is the worst possible thing that can happen to you.
Four years ago, on these very pages, I concluded a review of ‘Cabin Fever’ with the assertion that “this and ‘Thanksgiving’, the fake trailer Roth created for ‘Grindhouse’, [are] evidence of something that’s probably not at the top of anyone’s list at industry meetings but which I think would merit exploration: Eli Roth could direct the hell out of a comedy.”
‘Knock Knock’ is his first significant step in that direction, and I’m now prepared to double down on that assertion. Give Roth a scenario that demands straight-faced social horror and he’ll blow it by acting stupid; give him a set-up steeped in gallows humour and mordant satire and the guy delivers. In a decade’s time, when the originality-challenged bigwigs in Hollywood decide that what the world needs is a ‘Scream’ reboot, Roth will ace it. Although whether anything in any future film he directs, comedy or not, will ever top the demented brilliance of Keanu Reeves’s final reel “free pizza” speech is not something I’d put money on.