Eli Roth’s Knock Knock self-consciously courts accusations of sexism the way the filmmaker’s Hostel and The Green Inferno baited the left with their xenophobia and, well, sexism. The socio-political urgency of Audition, its wrestling with the emotional void that potentially separates desire from empathy, continues to haunt Roth’s filmography, though he’s never come anywhere close to matching it because he never commits to his subject matter by asking his audience to take what he’s doing entirely seriously.
Roth is often just getting off on violence and objectification, as well as on the irritated responses from critics who call him out on it. When he occasionally stages scenes with something resembling real emotional conviction, like the Báthory sequence in Hostel, Part II, the results can be commanding and stylishly upsetting. Like many directors to come of age in the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s success, Roth is a talented craftsman enthralled with flippancy.
But said flippancy initially infuses Knock Knock with a playful energy that’s distinctive from the narcotizing seriousness of most home-invasion thrillers; this is certainly the kind of story that needs to be taken down a peg or two. The film, a remake of Death Game, has a promisingly porny conceit. A hunky, successful architect, Evan (Keanu Reeves), is alone in his enviable Hollywood Hills home, his gorgeous wife, Karen (Ignacia Allamand), having gone to the beach with their children for the weekend. One night, in the middle of a rainstorm, while Evan sips red wine, smokes a little weed, and grooves with his righteous buzz to some vintage vinyl, two women knock at his door, requesting help with a situation that’s an intentionally obvious fabrication.
These women, who call themselves Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas), appear as if they’ve been hand-plucked from either a Michael Bay casting call or the daydreams of a man who hasn’t been getting any lately. Both are sopping wet, with low-plunging T-shirts and tight denim short shorts (for variety, they eventually don even comelier yoga pants), though the rainstorm hasn’t been able to wash away the makeup that perfectly emphasizes their lush lips and full, come-hither eyes.
Roth’s amusement with the absurdity of this situation is infectiously raunchy. The script, co-written by the director and Nicolás López and Guillermo Amoedo, often has the women saying things like “Sex with boundaries isn’t really sex. If our bodies are capable of doing it, then we were meant to.” That’s the kind of line that works as a turn-on and as a critique of a turn-on at once, though it’s nowhere near the level of gleefully dirty anti-sophistication that’s reached by Brian De Palma’s best gutter banter.
But this sort of thing works for Roth here. For once, a filmmaker is complicit with the heroes of a home-invasion film, rather than hypocritically standing apart from them. Roth is consciously nudging us, saying “who wouldn’t go for this,” and it’s this directness about his hungers—his lack of apology for them—that often rubs his detractors the wrong way. Helping Roth immeasurably is Reeves, who invests his character with a sense of humility and poignancy that’s miraculous considering the heightened, masturbatory context.
But soon the inherently prudish, preachy nature of this subgenre reins in Roth’s more inventive impulses. The women are sociopaths, of course, who take Evan prisoner, punishing him for his infidelity. Knock Knock then hits every beat of the home-invasion narrative, abounding in awkward, over-compensatory symbols meant to distinguish it as a treatise on the dangers of social media. Genesis and Bel chirp over their atrocities on Facebook, flushing Evan’s affluent life down the commode, his prized analog possessions destroyed by millennials who’ve been conditioned by the Internet to value shrewdness and cruelty over even a modicum of shame or propriety. There’s satiric potential in these developments, but Roth’s sense of humor abandons him when his hero isn’t about to get down with the get down.