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{Sundance Film Festival} Knocking – First Look Review

Swedish thriller Knocking is a tight film, revolving around a gripping turn from lead Cecilia Milocco. She is the movie, inflating life into a rather thin premise. Perhaps too thin to make this into a feature film. 

At a 78-minute runtime, Knocking barely digs beneath the surface of horror and trauma. Yet it’s a remarkable effort at portraying a woman’s struggle with mental health in an indifferent world.

Director Frida Kempff filmed Knocking, inspired by a short novel, in only 18 days. She directed a script by Emma Bromström, turning it into a promising horror story that relies on sound design as the source of casual terror.

What Is That Noise: The Casual Terror Of Knocking

Milocco plays protagonist Molly, a grief-stricken woman who has checked into a psychiatric ward after a nervous breakdown. When she leaves the hospital and tries to make a new life for herself, the painful flashes of the tragedy she’s experienced resurface. Viewers soon learn Molly’s partner Judith (Charlotta Åkerblom) died some time prior. The protagonist carries that burden into a new home, where she starts hearing a continuous knocking sound coming from the ceiling. 

Adamant there is a woman in danger, Molly seeks help from neighbors as well as authorities. But her history of mental health is enough for these mainly male, hostile figures to dismiss her. Completely alone, Molly realizes she has to take things into her own hands.

The plain building she moves into is the prison where she becomes prone to multi-sensorial hallucinations. The cinematography by Hannes Krantz and the sound design and mixing by Thomas Jæger play on Molly’s supposed altered state to insinuate doubts in the viewers, and in the protagonist herself.

Knocking Is An Uneven Gaslighting Thriller

If there’s ever to be a #MeToo movie genre, Knocking would be an example of that, says director Kempff.

Despite not dealing with sexual assault directly, the film is a good attempt at portraying gaslighting on screen. Hanging around in Molly’s bedroom in an uncharacteristically sweltering Swedish summer, the audience sees the notion of truth being bent. Women are very rarely handed out validation easily, the movie suggests. Not believing in one another is what makes society — embodied by the multi-storey apartment complex — collapse, quite literally, in the finale.

Photo provided by The Sundance Film Festival

Knocking doesn’t seem to do justice to Milocco’s performance. The movie could have explored Molly’s past or secrets, as it is in the similarly auditory horror story The Tell-Tale Heart by Edgar Allan Poe. Or played further on the haunted house trope in a subtle manner as we’ve seen in last year’s Relic.

Sadly, Knocking never goes there. Like its protagonist, it stubbornly insists on its central theme, stretching it to the very end.

Knocking’s Frustrating Finale

Tragically, Knocking also fails to address Molly’s personal trauma in a way that could allow viewers to empathize with her. What matters is getting to the bottom of the unnerving knocking from upstairs. 

The movie is also rather frustrating in its resolution, where Molly is proven right by pure chance. And this might be precisely the point of Kempff’s movie, condensed in that final frame of Molly’s grimace opening into a smile. She holds the knowledge that, if tables don’t turn, recognition and affirmation will come at great cost for women.

Knocking is an interesting experiment, and a self-conscious one, too. A longer runtime would’ve made it hard to bear, depotentiating Milocco’s strong delivery. But as it is, the movie is unsatisfying. This is but an embryo of the daring thriller that could’ve been, but makes viewers curious of what Kempff and Milocco are up to next.