Ignore the dark and stormy night, the tinkle of ominous music, and the whole “directed by Eli Roth” part, and Knock Knock could momentarily pass for a star-powered porno. Its setup is pure after-hours Cinemax: Stuck home working on Father’s Day while his wife and children are on a sun-and-fun vacation, architect Evan (Keanu Reeves) gets an unexpected late-night visit. Standing at his front door, scantily clad and soaking wet, are Genesis (Lorenza Izzo) and Bel (Ana De Armas), two flirty young women of indeterminate age. Stranded on the outskirts of Los Angeles without a working phone, these damsels in distress talk their way into Evan’s swanky modern home, where the conversation turns to the appeal of older men, the pleasures of three-ways, and the impossibility of monogamy. Poor Evan doesn’t stand a chance. If only someone could tell him the genre of the movie he’s unwittingly starring in.
Actually, that could prove difficult even for those watching the film. Part softcore erotic thriller, part home-invasion nightmare, and a third part twisted dark comedy, Knock Knock defies easy classification. Coincidentally, it arrives just two weeks after Roth’s last picture, The Green Inferno, received its belated theatrical release. Comparing the two is instructive: Whereas that execrable grindhouse throwback did little more than put a tropical twist on the Hostel formula, Knock Knock breaks the cycle of repetition that’s plagued Roth’s career, effectively inverting his usual slaughter-the-tourist scenario. Instead of venturing out into a dangerous world, our hero is confronted by danger in his own home—a reversal that signals a new direction for the filmmaker, a more inwards-facing approach to violent genre fare.
Which is not to say that Roth has located some hidden reservoir of good taste. Knock Knock is as crassly provocative and punishment-obsessed as any of the director’s movies. Still, the intimacy of the premise, with its tiny cast of characters and more-or-less single location, demands a greater precision and control than he’s exhibited in the past. As usual, Roth delays the mayhem with a slow-burn opening act, but the protracted prologue isn’t just wheel spinning this time: The lengthy seduction scene, in which Genesis and Bel chip away at the resolve of their host, plays like an age-flipped variation on The Graduate’s first big tête-à-tête, uncomfortable comedy and all. (The use of an Uber app as a countdown clock is especially clever.) And the claustrophobic nature of the material seems to inspire Roth formally; he turns Evan’s posh pad into a labyrinth of blind corners, voyeuristically gliding his camera down its narrow corridors.
As in Hostel, there’s a stench of misogyny to the scenario, which equates the advances of beautiful women to grave danger. The script, which Roth co-wrote with Nicolás López and Guillermo Amoedo, goes out of its way to position Evan as a victim of his own impulses—he’s an architect who believes in individual design, not fate—but that doesn’t quite gel with the predatory zeal in which Genesis and Bel attempt to ensnare him. If this is a feminist revenge story, as Roth has argued, it’s a deeply confused one, since every prominent female character is either a duplicitous temptress or a neglectful, blue-balls-provoking spouse. Better to read Knock Knock as Roth’s distinctly irreverent spin on the midlife-crisis movie, in which a domesticated family man grapples with both his fantasies of rejuvenation and the price of indulging those fantasies. (It can’t be an accident that, at 43, Roth is about the same age as his protagonist.)
On the other hand, maybe Knock Knock is just one long, sick joke, skillfully told by a filmmaker who’s always spiked his horror with black humor, just never this effectively. Laughter is about the only proper response to the movie’s cartoon cat-and-mouse offenses, which benefit from a trifecta of unhinged performances. De Armas and Izzo—the latter of whom is married to Roth and appeared in both The Green Inferno and Aftershock—smoothly transition from fantasy-object seduction to puckish malevolence, breathing diabolical life into characters that, on paper anyway, are little more than walking emblems of male anxiety. Reeves, likewise, is funnier than he’s been since Bill & Ted, as a man doing futile battle with his own weak will. It’s the kind of vanity-free, dignity-be-damned performance that Nicolas Cage regularly delivers, and by the time Keanu is bellowing hysterically about free pizza, the urge to surrender becomes difficult to resist.