The early frontrunner for “most relatable thriller of 2021” might just be Knocking, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday night. Though it doesn’t take place in the pandemic, it nevertheless exemplifies many of the worries, fears, and lonely self-reflection that many of us have felt in the days of quarantine. It also touches on societal issues of mental health, gaslighting, the quickness for people to dismiss women’s concerns, and neighbors being creepy. And all this in under 80 minutes.
Knocking is the feature debut of Swedish director Frida Kempff, with a script from Emma Broström adapting a Johan Theorin novel. It boasts an absolutely brilliant performance by Cecilia Milocco as Molly, a woman who has just left psychiatric care following a traumatic loss. She gets an apartment in a building, and the superintendent and some of her other neighbors seem nice enough. Quickly Molly starts hearing a dull and constant knocking on her ceiling which disrupts her solitude. She questions her upstairs neighbors but nobody seems to know what she’s talking about.
That’s upsetting enough. I live in an apartment where a knocking will sometimes emit from an interior wall that absolutely can’t have anything in it. It’s a fact of apartment living; stuff makes noise. But Molly’s annoyance quickly turns to concern when, in addition to the knocking, she begins hearing faint crying, and eventually a woman’s pleas for help. But whenever she calls the police, or asks her neighbors, nobody can hear anything. Or at least, they say they can’t.
This quickly becomes the driving force in Molly’s life. Why will no one believe her? Is there someone in need of help or is it in her head as seemingly everyone in her life assumes. Maintaining a tenuous grasp on her own senses, a dogged resolve that she isn’t hallucinating, that it is really happening, is the only thing Molly can truly trust. But how can she prove it? What measures will she take? Milocco’s performance never overplays the hand, keeping Molly’s intentions pure while the reality behind them is murky.
Kempff’s direction reflects Molly’s state of mind perfectly. At first meek and unobtrusive; later frenetic and forceful. Wisps of Molly’s subconscious bleed into the reality of her isolation but never too much as to go full-on fantasy. It keeps us ever questioning what’s real and what isn’t until the final breathless moments. It’s a film that ensures the audience is on the backfoot just as much as its main character, and this connection is absolutely vital.
Knocking isn’t a comfortable watch, but it’s a brisk and punchy discomfort. For Molly’s sake as well as our own, her fears need to be true. But it’s to the movie’s credit that it withholds all answers until nearly the last possible moment. Cut to black, and then it’s up to us to make up our minds.