Director Frida Kempff and writer Emma Broström’s Knocking (2021), adapted from Johan Theorin’s novel Knackningar (2016), invites us into the intimate space of a character recovering from trauma. A psychologically taut story, it feels emotionally spacious, but physically it’s a claustrophobic world we enter.
Molly (Cecilia Milocco) looks forward to her independence when she’s released from a psychiatric hospital. Soon after moving into her new apartment building, she’s unnerved by knocking sounds coming from the apartment above. Asking her neighbours about the mysterious noises, she realises no one else can hear them. The situation escalates when she begins to suspect a woman in another apartment is being abused and held against her will.
Knocking cannot succeed by only conveying Molly’s anxiety and paranoia. The audience must feel the oppressive claustrophobia, which is the “pleasure”, if you will, of such stories. One way this is achieved is to have her personal space emotionally and physically intrude upon the external space.
The flashbacks to the spacious beach and ocean are overshadowed by the origins of her trauma. In one scene when she’s buying fruit, the tight and close-up framing denies viewers an emotional distance from Molly, risking anxiety being transferred.
When a film focuses on details, it creates apprehension. Here we have “help” graffitied in the lift, a docile fly buzzing against the window, and a bird trying to land on the balcony railing. The shots of the character moving around her apartment, the sound of her footsteps, the focus on touch as she performs those mundane everyday tasks with no dialogue and a sparse narrative, serve an important purpose.
Traumatic memories, depression, and anxiety make the person susceptible to being hyper-aware, honing in on the finer details of their surroundings. The attention to detail with which Kempff directs this film offers a genuine snapshot of a person being at war with their own mind. The lack of narrative development and attention to detail activates the audience’s instinctive paranoia – we become hyper-aware of the filmmakers’ presence in this story, and we question what she is up to.
Knocking tightens the suspense into an increasingly taut psychological horror. Molly’s vulnerability never allows the story to breathe easily. An inherent tension haunts it from the beginning, partly because of our expectations.
The premise of the story is, what’s real and what’s inside the character’s head? Kempff and Broström deliberately take a vulnerable character to stir the audience’s apprehension toward trusting what Molly sees and hears. It creates conflicted feelings between our rational mind and our impulse to be loyal to the character we’ve developed an empathy for. This becomes a catalyst for the growing tension that constricts tighter, as we struggle to anticipate the game Kempff and Broström are playing.
Is it all in Molly’s head – or not?
This game with two possible outcomes is a tried and tested exercise. The audience is aware that they’re being positioned to try to correctly anticipate the outcome, but the struggle is to stop their emotional response to Molly’s vulnerability. Storytelling is often an emotional trap; in this case, it’s almost a competition between Kempff and her audience.
We don’t want to be misled and believe that the sounds goading her paranoia are real if it’s to be revealed that she’s imagined it all. There’s an instinctive drive amongst viewers to protect our pride, to not be misdirected or choose wrong. This provokes a competitive relationship with the filmmaker, where our guarded side tries to anticipate the story’s direction.
Indeed, told from the female perspective, Knocking looks at the prevalent hostility towards women. From a nuanced perspective, it’s not only men that are guilty of such misogyny, but other women too. This hostility is not always expressed in the form of physical violence, it can be passive-aggressive, or passive indifference.
Meticulously paced, Knocking builds to a closing scene that’s perfectly executed. There’s a trend in thrillers to tag on additional endings, but Kempff and Broströmare are not guilty of indulging this. In the closing moments, the film matures from a story about a woman suffering from trauma and tormented by a mysterious knocking sound that goads her paranoia, into an overarching theme about the horrors women experience in our male-dominated society.
Kempff, Broström, Milocco are asking if women are even heard. Knocking also brings to mind that if independent and empowered women experience this sort of harassment, what’s the fate of those with less confidence, living in fear?
Knocking is haunted by a history of indifference towards the feminine voice. In addition to its passive critique of misogyny, it also offers a glimpse into the isolating horror for those suffering from trauma, depression, and anxiety.