The word “gaslighting” is so broadly used these days — its definition, in some quarters, having evolved into a synonym for “lying” — it’s almost reassuring to see a psychological thriller that cleaves to its original sense. No one else gets much reassurance, however, in “Knocking”: a Swedish creeper that, as in “Gaslight” nearly 80 years ago, sees a frail female protagonist’s mental health history weaponized against her, making her question her grip on a possibly sinister reality.
Painted in sweat and lit low in dusty browns and rich, fermented yellows, Frida Kempff’s stylish debut feature initially imbues its old-school premise with enough needling atmosphere to suggest something unnerving and unexpected afoot. The surprise, then, is its lack thereof. “Knocking” may tweak its familiar premise for a #MeToo-era critique of society’s inclination to disbelieve women, but never quite pulls the rug out from under us: Crisply made and gutsily performed as it is, this slender 78-minute film too often feels like pointed social allegory in search of a really good cover story.
More from Variety
A high-profile premiere in Sundance’s Midnight strand might stand “Knocking” in good stead with edgier genre-inclined distributors, though Kempff’s film is actually least effective when it goes for all-out horror: Its house-that-dripped-blood imagery and sporadic jolt scares aren’t inventive enough to catch audiences unawares, technically well-wrought as they are. The early insertion of a clip from Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” — glimpsed on a communal TV screen in a mental health institution with decidedly improbable entertainment ideas — is perhaps a closer clue as to what manner of game Kempff wishes to play, though Emma Broström’s screenplay, adapted from a novel by Swedish author Johan Theorin, doesn’t sustain such ambitious reference points.
What does keep proceedings aloft is a performance of rigorous, nerve-fried intensity by Cecilia Milocco, an actor too little used on the big screen since her striking 2008 breakthrough in Ruben Östlund’s “Involuntary.” Her crumbled expressions and jittery, hesitant body language fill in a lot of the script’s gaps around her character Molly — most notably the root of an unspoken trauma that is obliquely introduced in a misleadingly sun-licked opening scene. On a pebbly Scandinavian beach, Molly snoozes and tans; her girlfriend affectionately caresses her before entering the water for a dip. We’re left to assume details of the tragedy that follows, though the ensuing film will repeatedly circle around it in dreamy flashback: One way or another, Molly wakes up alone, years later, in the aforementioned institution.
Things have evidently been bad for her in the interim, but are slowly getting better. Released from care, she moves into a bland but comfortable suburban apartment with an attentive, sympathetic super (Krister Kern). Regular calls from her therapist (Kristofer Kamiyasu, heard but never seen) encourage her to gradually make herself at home. She buys plants; she embarks on a healthy, fruit-laden diet. If only she could do something about the knocking. Every night, a series of urgent, consistent raps echo through the ceiling, keeping her awake and alarmed. Is the noise human? Is it code? Is someone in trouble and trying to communicate with her? The none-too-friendly upstairs neighbors profess no awareness of the knocking; even when the knocks turn to cries through the walls, police and emergency services swiftly brush off her concerns.
From this simple, solid setup, however, “Knocking” does little more than toss and turn in place — rather like Molly, as a stifling summer heat wave makes it even harder for her to keep her thoughts together. As her certainty grows that she’s once again powerless to save someone from an awful fate, she’s increasingly consumed by the grief she briefly had under control. “Knocking” joins a long line of genre precedents, from “Repulsion” through to “Hereditary,” in which trauma is the true bogeyman. Which isn’t to say, either, that the relentless knock-knock-knocking is all in her head. The film is too embedded in the traditions of gaslight cinema for audiences to easily join the authorities on that dismissive track.; cue a hurried sequence of last-gasp twists that undermine the script’s credibility instead.
At least Kempff’s visual storytelling is all in order, making for an auspicious formal calling card. Hannes Krantz’s humid, gravy-toned cinematography and Elle Furudahl’s cramped, faintly rotting production design work in close conjunction to keep us in Molly’s anxious headspace, rather than coolly outside of it. (That said, increasing use of a Snorricam-like setup to convey her disorientation, echoing the chaotic final reels of “Requiem for a Dream,” might be a gimmick too far.) Thomas Jaeger’s sound design, meanwhile, cleverly makes the knocking such a fixed aural motif — layered through a score and soundscape so rife with other buzzes, screeches, whines and percussive rattles of uncertain origin — that we’re sometimes uncertain if we’re actually hearing it or not. That’s some nifty cinematic gaslighting right there.
Best of Variety