'Knocking' Review: Strange Sounds And Even Stranger Neighbors Haunt This Brief, Effective Horror-Thriller [Sundance 2021]

Molly (Cecilia Milocco) has just left a mental institution and is ready to start over. Her new life takes her to an apartment complex, but as a heatwave sets in, this place of potential new beginnings turns ominous. There's a strange, inexplicable knocking sound coming from the apartment above – or so Molly thinks. No one else in the building can hear it, and when Molly asks her upstairs neighbors if they're making the noises they greet her questions with confusion. But something is going on in this building...or is it?

With Knocking, director Frida Kempff unleashes a film rich in textures and a foreboding atmosphere. Kempff favors close-ups, and there are a lot of them here. Close-ups of pieces of fruit; of sweaty skin; of plastered walls and ceilings. In theory, all of these things are harmless; mundane, even. Yet in Kempff's hands (and through Hannes Krantz's lush, crisp cinematography), even the humdrum can appear horrifying. There are bad vibes afoot in nearly every frame of Knocking – we get the sense right from the jump that everything here is wrong.

Milocco heightens all of this as Molly, a woman fresh from a mental hospital. Knowing Molly's status immediately makes us draw assumptions about her mental state. If she's getting out of the hospital she must be feeling better – right? And we can chalk up her nervousness about her new apartment to something resulting from her new life – a life that's void of her partner, whom we catch in flashbacks set at an idyllic day at the beach.

The claustrophobia of Molly's new apartment coupled with the presence of stifling heat captures us in a vice-like grip, and we're helpless as we're drawn along with Molly as she becomes more and more certain something is very wrong here. She witnesses a couple fighting in the courtyard below – but the couple later denies it. She's positive she saw someone leap to their death from one of the apartment balconies – but there's no body to be found. And, of course, there are those damn knocking sounds. Are they innocuous? The sounds of someone hammering a nail to hang a painting, perhaps? Or are they the Morse code signals of someone desperate for help?

At times, Knocking wants to comment on the horrors of gaslighting, with everyone around Molly doubtful of her very sanity And the clever way the film depicts all of these happenings makes us accomplices to that – we can't help but assume that Molly really is having some sort of breakdown, and none of this is real. But it's very real to Molly, and she grows more and more unmoored as the sounds continue. Milocco, who occupies practically every single scene, has to carry all of this on her shoulders, and she nails it. Her performance is simultaneously internalized and on the surface, and we're immersed within her haggard mindset. As her neighbors give her dirty looks we wonder if they're justified in their judgments – or if they're hiding far more sinister truths.

What hampers Knocking is a surprisingly brief runtime – it clocks in at a little over an hour. A good movie is only as long or short as it needs to be, but Knocking suffers from its short narrative. Just when we feel like we're hitting a groove the entire thing grinds to a halt in a most unsatisfying way. It feels as if Emma Broström simply ran out of ideas and threw in the towel.

As a sensory experience, Knocking is stunning. The heightened sounds mixed with a stuffy, collapsing ambiance create an unforgettable experience. Pity that the narrative in the midst of all of this fails to match that power. Knocking gets the job done – but barely. In the end, it's as fleeting as Molly's fractured, fading memories.

/Film rating: 6.5 out of 10