Review: Keanu Reeves plays a dangerous sex game in Eli Roth’s ‘Knock Knock’

PARK CITY – Sundance saw the debut of not one but two films that both fit the broad definition of a “horror film,” each with decidedly strong ideas about gender politics, but only one of the two seems to me to be genuinely worthwhile.

Eli Roth has become defined largely by the excesses of his films, and I'm sure that's perfectly fine with him.

Like many life-long gorehounds, when finally given a chance to make his own films, he happily ladled on buckets of blood. What I found interesting about Eli's films is how he seemed to be working one theme repeatedly, constantly exploring the fear that people have of the unknown in the world around them. “Cabin Fever,” “Hostel,” “Hostel II,” and “The Green Inferno” all feature characters leaving their homes, the places where they are comfortable, and heading out to some corner of the world where they are then promptly and completely punished for doing so.

On that level alone, “Knock Knock” marks an interesting departure, since pretty much the entire film takes place in the home of Evan Webber, played by Keanu Reeves. This is about what happens when the place or the life you think of safe is suddenly shattered in some fundamental way, and while it's just as twisted in terms of ideas as Eli's earlier films, there is a restraint here that actually makes this one feel like it more transgressive. Weird, right? The less Eli shows, the more he holds back, the more it feels like some important lines are being crossed.

The film was co-written with Guillermo Amoedo and Nicolas Lopez, who have become Eli's constant collaborative partners now through “Aftershock,” “The Green Inferno,” “The Stranger,” “Knock Knock,” and “I'm Not Crazy,” which is just getting ready to shoot. It seems like they've developed this great collective, so they're always writing and shooting and editing, with each of them taking turns directing depending on the project. Much of the same cast crosses over from film to film, like Lorenza Izzo, who started out starring in the Chilean comedies that Lopez and Amoedo made. She was the star of Roth's “The Green Inferno,” and they were married at the end of last year, with Izzo starring here as one of the two women who show up late one night at the door to Evan's house.

It's Father's Day weekend. Evan's family had a trip to the beach planned, but a deadline at work has him trapped at home alone. It's raining out, and when that knock comes at the door, Evan finds two girls there, soaking wet, confused about where they are. Both Genesis (Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas) look like they were plucked out of the id of some horny 15-year-old, and from the moment Evan makes the mistake of asking them if they want to step inside to dry off while calling for an Uber, there is a very definite game being played.

Keanu Reeves has had a tremendous resurgence in the last few years as he's seemingly reconnected with his own screen persona. One of the things that I found so interesting about “Man Of Tai Chi,” which he directed, is that he did not choose to play the hero, and that it felt like the action sequences were shot by someone who had actually had experience with movie fighting. As much as I enjoyed that one, I thought “John Wick” was pretty much perfect as a star vehicle, and Reeves has never seemed to enjoy himself more in a film. I like that he gave a shot to his stunt team, and they absolutely rose to the occasion, proving themselves as adept as directors as they are as performers.

Here, Reeves starts the film in a warmer, looser place than we're used to seeing him, playing with his kids as they wake him up for Father's Day. His wife (Ignacia Allamand) is heading out to the beach with the kids, and there's a little bit of tension between the two of them, but nothing dramatic. Evan's the kind of guy who prides himself on how cool he is, how cool his record collection is, how cool his haircut is, how cool his job is. It's cool that his wife is an artist with a show about to open. It's cool that he's got the house he's got. It's one of the reasons the Keanu casting pays off. I know a lot of suburban dads who probably think they look like Keanu Reees does at 50. They do not.

There's a stretch of the film, from when the girls walk in the door to when that first night ends, that is the single best thing Roth has staged so far. There's a hilarious square dance that happens where Reeves is constantly moving away from the girls, and they are constantly moving towards him, cornering him, surrounding him. Evan loves the attention, but he is also acutely aware of the boundaries, and he works to try to preserve them. The question the film poses is “Given opportunity, would any married man say no to sex with two hot girls in their 20s?” In our culture, the situation that Evan finds himself in is an oft-repeated porn scenario, the sort of set-up that is greeted with a nudge and a wink… but why?
Why is it an accepted stereotype that all men are cheaters? That we are incapable of fidelity? It used to bother me when I was married because I was scrupulously faithful. Even when things were difficult in my marriage, I never used that as an excuse to step outside things. It seemed like a simple binary choice to me. I was married. I made that decision. No one trapped me into it. No one fooled me. No one surprised me with the news that I was married. I don't understand men who feel like they can't be faithful. I still, even as a single man again, believe fidelity is a simple choice. It's unenforceable, which is what makes it so powerful. If you're able to truthfully offer it, then within that relationship, anything should be possible. But our culture doesn't believe in fidelity to such a degree that if you claim that you are a faithful husband, that the idea of cheating is repugnant to you, people assume you're hiding something or that it's merely the opportunity or the lack thereof that keeps you from cheating.

When “Knock Knock” made its debut at Sundance, I couldn't get a ticket for that screening. It was impossible. The press office didn't have any. The publicists didn't have any. Even the director and the screenwriter, reached out to directly, didn't have any. It was as hot as a Sundance ticket gets. Instead, I went to the Egyptian that night to see “Reversal,” knowing full well that I would catch up with “Knock, Knock” at the second screening. It's interesting that they were programmed against each other, because they way they approach their topics and engage with ideas are diametrically opposed, and as smart as one is, that's how stupid the other is.

“Reversal” was directed by Jose Manuel Cravioto and written by Keith Kjornes, and it is despicable. It was the one film at the festival this year that I outright hated, and I think it's a very specific kind of terrible. It tells the story of Eve (Tina Ivlev), a girl who was kidnapped and imprisoned by the monstrously dull Phil (Richard Tyson). As the film opens, Phil shows up to his dirty shack in the middle of nowhere and heads into the basement to feed Eve. She manages to overpower him and escape. Before she leaves the building, though, she finds a stash of photos that indicate that she's not the only girl Phil has abducted, and that this might not be the only safehouse Phil uses for his depravities. She decides to force Phil to take her to each house so she can set the girls free. But she's not counting on the power of the Stockholm Syndrome or the ability of fear to force silence, and it quickly turns into a nasty cat and mouse game.

Sounds fine, right? But it's not. It's another film that uses an allegedly feminist twist on horror conventions, but simply putting a gun in Eve's hand doesn't change that this is nearly two hours of torture, sexual abuse, and brutality towards women, a catalog of atrocity all designed to rile us up so it's okay when Eve finally shoots Phil. It's cheaply produced moral outrage in service of an infantile script, and it is so proud of its profundity that they drag it all out and play it in slow motion and angry whispers so we can all tell exactly how important it all is.

The rape revenge genre shouldn't even be a genre. How many times can the same point be made by filmmakers? Yes, rape is a horrifying violation. Yes, I am sure many victims of it would love to balance those books by killing the person who attacked them. It's a powerful fantasy for a reason. But in the '70s, those films still had some degree of kick because it was a new idea for filmmakers to explore. Now, it feels like no one has anything remotely new to say, and it's an excuse to just show us a sort of cascade of terrible things. Like many of the worst examples of the genre, “Reversal” can't decide if it is exploitation or commentary, and it ends up being neither. It is junk, muddled in its ideas and incapable in execution.

But “Knock Knock” understands that for this stuff to really get in and disturb an audience, it can't just be the same exact junk that's just lazily gender-switched. There's no charge to what we're watching in “Reversal,” because it doesn't have anything to say about a popular culture defined by the male gaze or the way men objectify women and see them as commodities or any of the various ideas that you could explore with a film like that. In “Knock Knock,” though, Roth and his co-writers recognize that power means different things for men and women, and it is expressed and exploited in different ways. The girls in “Knock Knock” aren't just generic bad guys that happen to be women. Instead, the game they're playing is all about defusing power and punishing the people of privilege. The girls believe that men all behave a certain way, and they use their games to test people. If the people fail that test, then the girls unleash a very specific type of torment upon them. They would love to see someone pass their test, and each time, it feels like they get angrier, because they keep trying to find someone to resist their offer, hoping it will happen, hoping they can let someone off the hook someday.

“Knock Knock” has something genuine to say, and it uses some really dark dramatic beats to get there. “Reversal” wallows in darkness, but because it can't figure out how to express any interesting ideas, it just feels unpleasant and grim and pointless. I'm not even giving “Reversal” a letter grade. I thought it was trash. The letter grade here is exclusively for “Knock Knock.”

In both cases, I'm glad to see genre films attempting to grapple with the uneasy and difficult sexual landscape of modern society, but I could do with a lot less empty shock and a lot more considered controversy. I don't mind if you push me or make me uncomfortable as long as it's clear that there's a point to it. I hope this is the beginning of a new phase in Roth's career, where he can take his appetite for anarchy and use it in service of films that genuinely upset thanks to the lingering power of ideas instead of the hollow calories of graphic shock.

“Knock Knock” will most likely debut sometime this year via Lionsgate. I have no idea who would want something like “Reversal,” but expect it to escape at some point as well.