Review: KNOCKING, The Desperate Cry of Not Being Heard
Swedish director Frida Kempff says she developed her career in the documentary genre because she was interested in social issues.
She decided to make her fiction debut with Knocking, based on the homonymous novel by her compatriot Johan Theorin, because she saw the opportunity to make a genre film with social relevance, one that seeks to reflect on screen how women are treated, and unfairly judged, by today's society.
This type of genre film has been labeled as a new wave of 'arthouse horror' since the middle of the last decade. Knocking meets the characteristics that the mainstream media classify as 'elevated genre': films with a familiar development, in which an underlying meaning 'elevates' them above the average.
Molly (Cecilia Milocco, outstanding) has spent the last year of her life in a psychiatric hospital. At the beginning of Knocking we understand that a trauma deteriorated her mental health. Her mind constantly returns to a day at the beach that she shared with her partner Judith (Charlotta Åkerblom), whose absence marks Molly's present. Now, however, everything seems to have improved. It's time for the protagonist to leave the hospital and try to rebuild her life little by little, starting with a new apartment.
Knocking uses a classic setting and development in genre cinema with a psychological and paranormal background. Although, here, the supernatural never has a place. It's one of those movies where the central character is the only one who notices the strange events, while no one else understands what she or he is talking about.
There's usually a moment when, exactly when someone decides to pay the necessary attention, the strange event doesn't make itself known. Of course, the protagonist falls into desperation, self-doubt, and loses her/his mind.
The words "help me," painted on the elevator in Molly's new building, is the prelude to things to come. A knock on the roof of her apartment begins to alter the protagonist's adaptation process.
The most logical thing would be that one of her neighbors is hitting the floor, although he denies it: "someone must be doing renovations," he says. One of Molly's doctor's instructions is for her to try to do again what she used to like. There's, for example, a scene where we see her enjoying a song and a drink while she calmly dances... until the knocking starts again.
As a heat wave hits Europe, Molly begins to suspect that perhaps the blows aren't random. Could it be a message in Morse code? Somebody needs help? Are any of the neighbors hiding something? Or, is it all in her head?
Knocking plays with those possibilities, for example, in one sequence we see Molly barefoot on the street, evidence of how her mental health is deteriorating. Other incidents increase her suspicion, such as the fight between a young couple who live in one of the upstairs apartments. Molly is convinced that the woman suffers from domestic violence; she calls the police but, apparently, she's wrong again.
Things intensify, her mind plays more tricks on her -- it's obvious that Molly stopped taking her medication -- and, a stain on the ceiling that she had cleaned without problems reappears bigger and bigger. Her story seems less likely and paranoid to others. However, there's always something that reaffirms her belief that a woman is in danger and needs her assistance; the noise goes from the ceiling to the bathroom, from knocking to sobs, then to cries for help.
Milocco's performance is Knocking's strongest element. One of her most notorious sequences is an intense breakdown – with reversed POV shots, achieved with a SnorriCam – which breaks with the form and rhythm that the film had proposed. Representing on the screen the desperate cry of not being heard, it's an absolute collapse. Knocking seeks to translate into film language a mental disorder, a trauma linked to loss that reaches the point of no return.
The film is effective at times. Its final plot twist – a nod to the protagonist – coincides with what underlies throughout the story and what Kempff mentioned in her introduction to the film at Sundance 2021. It's no coincidence that Molly is suspicious of male characters: "believe women" is a call intrinsic to current issues in the world and to the film.
Originally published in slightly different form during the Sundance Film Festival in February 2021. (A version in Spanish of this review was also published at Cinema Inferno.) The film will open in U.S. theaters on Friday, October 8 and will then be available to watch via various On Digital and On Demand platforms on October 19. Visit the official site for more information.