Knocking, a psychological thriller of sorts that details one woman’s deteriorating mental state as she’s driven mad by mysterious noises emanating from the apartment above her, is exactly half of a good movie. But an excellent lead performance by Cecilia Milocco and crisp, evocative direction by Frida Kempff can only take this material so far, as the film flits through a series of clichéd genre tropes and overly-familiar formal moves. Milocco plays Molly, a seemingly normal middle-aged woman who, as the film opens, is being released from a psychiatric ward. She’s been there for a year or so, but is ready to resume her life, confident that whatever mental malady landed her in the hospital is now behind her. Molly moves into an anonymous-looking apartment building and sets about performing what she thinks is typical behavior — grocery shopping, picking out plants for her new home, etc. She’s convinced herself that everything is going great, that is until she tries to sleep and hears a constant, muffled knocking coming from the floor above her bed.
Knocking is a genuinely unnerving film, at first; Kempff shoots much of the proceedings in close-up, tethering the viewer to Molly’s point of view while turning the interior of the apartment into a drab, claustrophobic box, with figures constantly hewed in by the architecture of the space. She also favors camera setups that are just slightly askew, framing Milocco’s face from above or below eye level, and using a slight wide-angle lens that keeps the image off-balance and flattened in subtle ways. But once Molly begins investigating the source of the noise and meets some strange-looking neighbors, the narrative quickly becomes a long road to a foregone conclusion. Despite her strengths as a visual stylist, Kempff can’t do much to elevate the hackneyed script by Emma Broström, which tries to liven up staid material with lots of garden variety symbolism and empty signifiers. We are given brief glimpses of what appear to be flashbacks to Molly and an unknown woman having a date at the beach, but these images are never explained, and indeed it’s never clear if they are supposed to be memories or fantasies. Their frequent recurrence suggests they are perhaps a skeleton key to Molly’s ailments, but like much else in the film, they remain vague and needlessly opaque.
Eventually, Molly becomes convinced that the knocking noises are actually Morse code, and she becomes obsessed with the idea that a woman is being held captive somewhere in the building. Soon, she’s trying to decode the message while pestering the police with her theory. Of course, given her background, her concerns are quickly dismissed, and it’s not long before Molly is plastering her wall with wild scribbles and cryptic notes (easy cinematic shorthand for conspiracy-minded obsession, so much so that it’s remarkable any filmmaker would still use such a hoary device in earnest). The film paints itself into a corner, with only two available options; Molly is crazy or something foul is genuinely afoot. Try as it might — and it tries very hard — Knocking can’t infuse this Polanski-esque psychodrama with any fresh insight or novelty, and even abandons its vaguely surreal subjectivity for an easy, pat ending. Still, Milocco gives a fine, carefully calibrated performance, and Kempff, making her feature narrative debut after working in documentaries, exhibits plenty of visual verve to suggest she’s clearly a talent to watch. Knocking, then, is something like her rough draft.
Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 1.