Gaslighting is defined as a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or a group covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment. Initially coming to public attention with the 1944 psychological thriller Gaslight, the term has surged at the front of the public’s mind in recent years. One such targeted group that we are socially conditioned to gaslight, whether consciously or unconsciously, are those with mental illnesses. A lot of this stems from the need for us to have things out of the norm. However, this desire to have undisrupted normalcy can have devastating consequences on both the micro and macro levels. Director Frida Kempff illustrates this and more in KNOCKING.
After being released from a psychiatric institution, Molly (Cecilia Milocco) moves into a brand new apartment building to start her life anew. However, almost as soon as she moves in, she starts to hear knocking coming from her ceiling. An unpleasant sensory experience, she tries to find the source of the knocking, but with little success. Her neighbors treat her coldly, at times seeming to humor her dismissively. As the knocking begins to intensify and she starts to hear a woman’s cries, Molly becomes obsessed with needing to find out the truth. Her mind starts to cycle through the possibilities. Could someone be trapped? What if it’s Morse Code? Why is no one else hearing the noises, but her? What ultimately ensues is a film that forces us to look plainly in the face of how society has groomed us to conveniently dismiss what we don’t hear or understand and then some, even when the truth is right under our noses.
Thematically, there is a lot to munch on in KNOCKING. At the heart and core of this film is a seething argument about how Western society is inherently socialized to gaslight mentally ill people. Throughout the course of the film, the audience sees how Molly is treated by her neighbors. Constantly dismissed so that she begins to doubt herself and spiral even further. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, where the person ends up deteriorating in the end and creating further problems down the role. And, part of this is in how screenwriter Emma Broström has laid out the story. The story positions itself to naturally have its audience doubt Molly until the very end, which has the result of reminding us how easy it is due to our social conditioning to disbelieve mentally ill people. In this regard, well done.
Cecilia Milocco is the true standout of KNOCKING. Her performance easily grips onto the audience’s hearts and pulling them along with her as all we can do is watch Molly spiral onscreen. With a mixture of vulnerability and strength as Molly fixates on saving whoever is trying to initiate contact, the magic and glue of this film is truly found in her. Further enhancing the performance Milocco gives are the decisions Kempff makes in her visual excursion, zooming in on Milocco’s face when she spirals. The camera following her face as she confronts neighbors with her suspicions, the audience is dizzy with her as everything becomes all the more overwhelming. These two elements in tandem create gold.
Another element that needs to be focused on is how the sound is utilized throughout KNOCKING. As someone with auditory processing issues, certain sounds personally aggravate more than others. From the actual knocking to the sound of quacking coming from the phone, certain sound choices read as intentional. Jarring sudden sounds like quacking get under the skin. They make a person uncomfortable. But, eventually, one can tune them out. Without a pattern established, however, these sounds don’t get a chance to be tuned out by the viewer. Instead, it forces us to be as uncomfortable as the character Molly must be in this world Kempff has created for her audience.
Overall, KNOCKING makes great use of its shorter run time, with pacing that stretches out to compensate. While this film may be lacking for some in the horror realm, this film highlights the everyday horror that mentally ill people must contend with in navigating a world not designed for them. Cecilia Milacco’s performance draws the viewer in and the direction and story compels us to watch and learn how we are all complicit. The fact that we are all led to question Molly’s story in itself highlights what Kempff is trying to show us. And that is mastery.
KNOCKING had its world premiere on January 29 at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.