Saturday, 21 November 2015

"This is what happens when you break the rules of the game, Evan."

Several production credits aside, Eli Roth has been lying low since the skilfully nasty Hostel (2005) initiated the torture porn cycle a decade ago. You could argue that Roth has matured somewhat with his latest film's premise. Here, female sexuality threatens not the snickering frat boys of his earlier work, but a middle-aged man as the incredulous prey. With calculated perversity, Roth and co-writers Guillermo Amoedo and Nicolás López (Aftershock) attempt a crossbreed of Fatal Attraction (1987) and Funny Games (1997), staging a sustained assault on the idyllic Hollywood retreat architect Keanu Reeves (John Wick) shares with his loving artist wife.

After his wife takes the kids out of town for the Father's Day weekend, Reeves' Evan has been left to play his old vinyl collection and retrieve the pot previously consigned to a drawer in his man cave. Fleshier temptation presents itself when big eyed, bodacious party girls Genesis and Bel (Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas) turn up on his doorstep, soaked through from a storm. We know Evan regards himself as a knight in shining armour, so it is hardly surprising that he invites them in.

After a sinuous opening tracking shot, we are largely left in situ watching the girls playing Evan for a fool. Bending over provocatively, cooing upon discovering his DJ past and marvelling at his muscle tone, the scene is set for a raunchy game of cat and mouse. Much of the first half the film is a judicious tease. Anticipating the obvious three-way action, Roth instead focuses more on the initial tremors and their possible repercussions, than cutting straight to the big bang. "I like building up the anticipation," Reeves declares while unwrapping his presents, and his director may now feel similarly inclined, with Roth revealing a new-found attention to script nuance and other varieties of kink.

Izzo and de Armas, afforded greater screen time than Hostel's harpies, actually prove the film's most valuable players, shuffling through multiple wardrobe changes, each time re-entering as different kinds of manipulative monsters. Keanu, attempting more acting than the recent John Wick  (2014) demanded, is less certain. Nicely courtly when shrugging off the girls' initial advances, but gets hysterical during the morning after parenting job.

As a vision, Knock Knock remains pretty grim. Evan is an easily led dupe who gets what he deserves, the women shape-shifting temptresses. Yet the infrastructure sustaining it – a clever deployment of tensions specific to the Uber app, an eerily positioned overhead shot establishing the house's isolation and the tantalising hints this could all be a bad dream – stands as uncommonly sound. Roth remains among our brighter merchants of shock and gore.

You may even consider it a blessing that the film can't sustain the moral conservatism of Fatal Attraction, instead, we witness the director cackling – loudly, maybe reassuringly – as the girls threaten to out Evan as a paedophile, and a punchline that sniggers at the way our nightmares have shifted over recent decades from the private to the public domain. Little here is going to challenge the opinion of Roth as a bratty provocateur, but it is still fun to experience a contemporary thriller pushing so many buttons in broadly the right order – if Knock Knock is no more than a sick joke, it has certainly been very shrewdly constructed.

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