'Knocking': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Knocking
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Cecilia Milocco in 'Knocking'

Through a feminist glass darkly.

In a psychological horror film from Sweden, a woman is certain she hears distress signals through her apartment walls, and struggles to be believed.

When Molly, the troubled but dogged protagonist of Knocking, moves into her new apartment, she notices the word "Help" scrawled high on the elevator wall. Whether this is a random bit of graffiti or a sign of a particular hyperawareness on Molly's part — a sensitivity to cries of anguish — goes to the heart of this smart, disquieting film. Working from Emma Broström's adaptation of a novel by Johan Theorin, first-time feature director Frida Kempff embraces and revamps genre tropes, casting them in a trenchant feminist light and a character-specific poignancy. The action unfolds entirely through Molly's perspective, and Cecilia Miloccco's performance, by turns guarded and explosive, is gripping from first scene to last.

Kempff sets the tone of first-person disorientation in the opening moments, when Molly wakes from a nap in the community room of a psychiatric hospital. Bergman's Persona is playing on the TV (this is Sweden, after all): It's a scene on the beach, like a black-and-white afterimage of the seaside scene that just played out in Molly's sleep. The helmer uses such shifts among memories, dreams, device screens and hallucinations throughout the film, in ways that are sometimes illuminating, frequently ambiguous and always involving.

Molly is about to be released after a year of treatment for an apparent breakdown after the death of her girlfriend. Though her voice is unsteady, she agrees it's time to re-enter the world, and off she goes, with no one to meet her, alone on the bus to her new apartment. Kempff and production designer Elle Furudahl are fully attuned to the sense of transition and emptiness as Molly stocks the kitchen and slowly furnishes the space, with friendly assistance from a florist and a grocer.

But closer to home, the men are not so gracious. An annoying knocking sound intrudes on Molly's precarious sense of calm and balance, and when she tries to find the source on the floor above hers, her neighbors treat her with anything but neighborliness. She's confronted with cold indifference from Kaj (Ville Virtanen), whose forbidding manner and epaulet-adorned shirt have an old-school Germanic edge and make him almost comically creepy. There's something less definably off about the building's super, Peter (Krister Kern), and Per (Albin Grenholm) regards Molly with a smile that barely hides his condescension. None of them hear the knocking. But it continues. And then Molly notices a stain on the ceiling.

All this takes places against a continent-wide heatwave, an element that Kempff uses to up the horror mood, mostly in subtle ways and explicitly in a couple of lingering images of bursting flesh: a squashed frog on the sidewalk, an overripe plum. These items fascinate Molly, perhaps in the same way that a bloody scab on her knee becomes a comforting piece of proof that she's truly experiencing the things that everyone around her — including, eventually, the police — insists she's imagining.

Before long Molly is charting Morse code patterns in the knocking, and is certain that a woman is communicating her distress. But there's no question that Molly's urgency can feel unhinged. In a horror riff on Rear Window, a woman she sees in a building across the courtyard might be a figment of her imagination, or a mirror image of her own pain. Is it an outlandish leap of logic or an expression of keen intuition when she reads terror into a couple's fight, or when, after hearing muffled cries through a vent in her bathroom, she announces to the police that "someone in my building is being beaten to death"? Hannes Krantz's astute camerawork goes full-on expressionistic during Molly's climactic middle-of-the-night freak-out, a sequence in which time and perspective are not just heightened but crazed.

As you'd hope in a movie called Knocking, the sound design (by Thomas Jæger) is superb, accentuating the story's chills and emotions without overpowering them. In a hospital intake room, the sound of an unseen interviewer's typing after each question and answer is bloodcurdling, and the use of silence at key moments builds a portentous feeling of suspended animation. Martin Dirkov's understated score is slithery and insinuating, but it's also infused with an aching sadness. This is, at its core, a story of grief.

When Molly finds a dead bird on her terrace, she buries it with great care, enacting a much-needed ritual, one that she might not have been able to participate in after the death of her beloved Judith (Charlotta Åkerblom). Racing down a nighttime street to save an unseen neighbor, she's also rushing into the waves where Judith perished, haunted by her inability to save her. "I know someone has her," she tells the police at one point. "You must do something!"

Knocking is also, of course, the story of a woman being sidelined and disbelieved because her history and her aloneness make her easy to marginalize, easy to ignore. Miloccco's potent naturalistic performance conveys how intensely Molly is trying to hold it together from moment to moment, and how deeply she rages against the (mostly male) scorn that surrounds her. When she blasts Dusty Springfield's "You Don't Own Me" and dances drunkenly around her barely lived-in apartment, she's longing for loving abandon, but she's also sending a message.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Production company: Läsk
Cast: Cecilia Miloccco, Albin Grenholm, Alexander Salzberger, Krister Kern, Ville Virtanen, Charlotta Åkerblom, Kristofer Kamiyasu, Naida Ragimova, Juan Rodriguez, Bengt Braskered
Director: Frida Kempff
Screenwriter: Emma Broström
Based on the novel
Knackningar by Johan Theorin
Producer: Erik Andersson
Executive producer: Federico Ambrosini
Director of photography: Hannes Krantz
Production designer: Elle Furudahl
Costume designer: Elsa Fischer
Editors: Erika Gonzales, Erik Andersson
Composer: Martin Dirkov
Sound designer: Thomas Jæger
International sales: Bankside Films

In Swedish
78 minutes