“Knocking” (2021) Review

Dir. Frida Kempff; Cecilia Milocco

[2.5 out of 4 stars]

If you thought that M. Night Shymalan was the only one with something to say about beach-based trauma this year, I present Frida Kempff’s psychological thriller Knocking (2021) as a counterpoint. Adapted from Johan Theorin’s novel by Emma Broström, Knocking centers on Molly (Cecilia Milocco), a woman who has recently left a psych ward and moved into a new apartment. While the details are kept obscured, we can ascertain that the unexpected death of her partner Judith (Charlotta Åkerblom) while the two were on a beach vacation is what sent Molly into the ward. The briskly-paced film intercuts Molly’s memories from that beach day with the present, where she becomes increasingly concerned that a knocking sound she hears in her ceiling is someone in desperate need of help. One question hangs over all of it: is it really happening, or is Molly not as well as she thinks she is?

I quite enjoyed Knocking, so I want to get my single major gripe out of the way before celebrating the rest of it. Whether hamstrung by Theorin’s novel or not, Broström’s screenplay is the weakest part of the film. By way of premise, Knocking fits into the category of post-Rear Window (1954) anxiety thrillers which mine tension from the question of whether a protagonist is solving a crime or losing their mind. It is a heavily tread narrative and therefore requires a measure of inventiveness to iterate on without feeling rote. Unfortunately, most of Knocking’s major twists and turns land with thuds because they are each precisely what you expect them to be. Major misdirect about a neighbor who seems to fit the bill but turns out to be squeaky clean? Check. Desperate run to the police only to discover that one of your suspects is in fact a part of the force? You got it. In totality, Knocking benefits from its sub-two-hour runtime because we do not have time to linger on the clunky plot. 

Even with the weak screenwriting, Cecilia Milocco did not come to play. Structurally, Knocking is a one-woman show. We spend the majority of our time in Molly’s apartment, and whenever we leave, we are tied to her perspective and experiences. Milocco grasps the lackluster material and elevates it, fashioning it into a searing performance. The challenge in playing Molly is capturing the essence of a traumatized woman who believes she has healed from a mental break while being surrounded by people who constantly question her sanity so that doubt seeps into her mind. Milocco modulates between the restrained stillness of someone hyper-aware that her new neighbors and super are on the lookout for red flags, and the explosive desperation of someone who could not save her partner so is hell-bent on saving whomever she hears stuck above her. I was captivated by her performance, especially in one harrowing sequence where she breaks into a neighbor’s apartment to check for the mystery knocker. Milocco’s physicality, facial control, and ability to detonate incredible energy when the moment calls for it all make for a wickedly good performance.

Knocking is Frida Kempff’s first narrative feature directorial credit coming off 15 years of directing shorts, but I would easily believe this was the work of a more seasoned feature director.  The opening shot of the film is a disconcerting overhead of the beach with beachgoers scattered about, and then we cut to Molly and Judith. From there on out, the style grounds us in Molly’s perspective, both in terms of what we see and how we see it. The first act, when Molly is adjusting to the apartment and hasn’t yet wondered at length about the knocking, is marked by rhythmic shot selection and stark cinematography. The focus is Milocco’s performance, and Kempff frames it with a series of medium shots and close-ups that establish her actresses’ relationship to the space around her. It is only as Molly delves further into her concerns about the knocking that the style grows more bombastic, echoing Molly’s desperation and angst. The angles become more severe, the close-ups get tighter, and we stay on Molly’s face even when she’s looking at other people, confronted with the agonizing vulnerability of a woman surrounded by men telling her she’s nuts. Kempff has an eye for expressionist filmmaking, and I’m excited to see where she trains her gaze next.

Knocking is that rare example of a film where keen artistry overcomes a shaky foundation to deliver a work that stands out. It reflects highly on Kempff and Milocco in particular that their creative partnership turned Knocking into a highly effective character study masquerading as a thriller. It is a challenging film to watch in pandemic times when most of us have been, and are still, somewhat confined to our living quarters, and especially if you, like me, live in a house with a tendency to make odd noises. Do I believe someone is trapped in my walls? No, but for the rest of the night after I finished the film, Kempff and Milocco managed to make me stop and wonder the next time I heard a knock.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review stated that Knocking was Frida Kempff’s “first feature directorial credit.” It is not. She previously directed the feature documentary Winter’s Buoy (2015). The review has been updated to reflect that Knocking is her “first narrative feature directorial credit.”

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