Sunday, January 31, 2021

Sundance ’21: Knocking

In horror movies and psychological thrillers, shrinks are always discharging their institutionalized patients a little too soon. Will poor Molly be another? She suffered a nervous breakdown after a vaguely implied personal tragedy, but now her doctor thinks she is ready to rejoin the outside world. As luck would have it, they secured a flat for her in the Gaslight Arms. However, the persistent rapping noise she hears in her new apartment might just drive her mad (for good) in Frida Kemff’s Knocking, which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Molly had her apprehensions, but she was still mostly happy to get away from the dreary institution. Unfortunately, she has no support network of family of friends waiting for her. Molly is basically alone in her apartment, with nobody to confirm the strange knocking noises she starts to hear. Her neighbors are all suspicious-acting characters, who claim they can’t hear any such noises and don’t want to be bothered in any event.

As they persist, Molly latches onto the notion they could be a call for help in Morse Code, from a captive being held somewhere in the building. Of course, when she reaches out to the cops, it goes rather badly. It gets even worse during her subsequent attempts. Everyone thinks she is just crazy, including maybe even us, the viewers.

Cecilia Milocco really is terrific as Molly. This is a harrowing portrayal of a vulnerable woman wrestling with guilt, isolation, paranoia, and fear. There is no one she can trust in this film, not even herself. Milocco and Kemff vividly convey a sense of her extreme alienation, in every sense.

The problem is there is a fundamental binary simplicity to the film (based on a novella by Johan Theorin). Molly is either crazy, or there really is a sociopath holding a woman prisoner and gaslighting her into another psychological breakdown. Naturally, when signs overwhelmingly point in one direction, the alternative possibility must be the truth. In simple narrative terms, Emma Brostrom’s adapted screenplay basically stays at the level of a better episode of the old
Alfred Hitchcock Hour anthology series. It is the raw, exposed performance of Milocco and the remarkable sinister look achieved by cinematographer Hannes Krantz that elevates the film to a higher level.

Knocking is often frustrating, but viewers have to keep reminding themselves Molly is by definition not thinking clearly. Ultimately, it is worth sticking with it, because the ending is pretty powerful (even though it probably raises as many questions as it answers). At a mere 78 minutes, Knocking is literally a small movie, but Kemff skillfully builds tension out of the claustrophobic setting. However, it really better belongs in Sundance’s Next section rather than the Midnight track, because it really isn’t horror, per se. Regardless, it shows impressive filmmaking can overcome predictability issues. Recommended for fans of gaslight thrillers, Knocking screens again today (1/31) as part of this year’s mostly online Sundance Film Festival.