The majority of us have spent the better part of the last year stuck inside of our homes, isolated from the world. We’ve felt the ways that this can start to mess with your mind. I know that I myself have started to have issues with thinking that I’m seeing things that aren’t there in my house in the middle of the night. Frida Kempff taps into these fears with her new film, Knocking, a lean Swedish thriller that got its debut in the Midnight section at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The 2021 fest is the first time Sundance has gone virtual, and while many (including myself) have missed the experience of being in a movie theater, there’s something fitting about seeing Knocking in the confines of your own home, preferably alone late at night. It furthers the impact of putting you into the headspace of Molly (Cecilia Milocco), a woman recovering from a traumatic incident who moves into a new apartment after being released from a mental health facility.
Adapted by Emma Broström, from a novel written by Johan Theorin, the movie is pretty light on plot. Alone in her apartment, Molly starts to hear a strange knocking from the floor above her. Thinking that someone is in trouble, she tries to reach out, first to her neighbors and eventually to the authorities. When no one believes her, she begins to question if she’s losing her mind, but the knocking doesn’t stop. It’s a maddening premise, calling to mind other films about women having mental breakdowns isolated in their homes, like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Robert Altman’s Images.
Unlike those two pictures, Knocking was created by a team of women, and watching a movie like this in our current context gives it whole new meaning. While Kempff certainly has drawn from her cinematic influences, there’s something unique being brought to the table here with how she approaches Molly’s story. In a post #MeToo world there’s something even more unsettling about a woman desperately seeking help, only to be dismissed by those around her.
With the added component of recently being treated for her mental health, Molly starts to struggle with her own concept of reality, wondering whether what she’s feeling is even true. This is something that we’ve seen discussed more and more within the last few years, as women share stories of trying to seek help when they’ve been abused, only to be dismissed and begin to question whether anything wrong even happened, or if it was all their fault. Watching Molly struggle with the way those around her treat her pleas, Kempff forces you to question how differently she would be treated if she were a man.
This is a very tight thriller, clocking it at just under 80 minutes, and a large part of that is due to how dedicated Kempff is to keeping us within Molly’s perspective. There aren’t any subplots here to fill out the time, nor any voiceover narration to spoon feed to us what Molly is thinking. Our experience is created by this combination of Kempff’s reliance on visual language to convey the things we need to know, and a reliance on the performance of Cecilia Milocco to get us to understand what Molly is going through.
Thankfully, Milocco is more than up to the task. Having previously worked with Kempff on her short film Dear Kid, the two clearly have a bond with one another that has helped allow the actress to go to some seriously dark places as she explores the emotional turmoil that Molly is going through. Knocking is a tough watch at times, but you’re constantly glued to Milocco’s performance, developing a deep concern and empathy for the woman, whether she’s going crazy or if this is all really happening.
There’s one scene in particular, a long take as Molly is rushing from door to door in the apartment building looking for help, that is almost unbearably intense. For this sequence, Kempff places the camera at a low angle directly under Milocco’s face, and we simply hold on the actress’ face as she goes from door to door, her desperation growing stronger by the minute. It’s easily the standout sequence of the movie, and likely one of the most nerve-wracking scenes you’ll see all year. That one moment is a distillation of the fear and anxiety rushing through Molly throughout the entire course of Knocking, and a testament to Kempff’s ability to capture the experience that this woman is going through.
In recent years we’ve seen a surge of strong thrillers and horror films made by women. Films like The Babadook from Jennifer Kent, and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night from Ana Lily Amirpour that have taken genres with a long history of exploiting and degrading women and brought new perspectives that subvert these common tropes. I wouldn’t hesitate to put Knocking up alongside them. This is a movie that takes from cinematic influences of the past, while also creating an identity entirely of its own.