Sundance Reviews: ‘Knock Knock,’ ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment,’ ‘Stockholm, Pennsylvania’

By January 31, 2015
  414

Movies have shown that hurting someone physically is easy, fun, and profitable. But if you really want to leave a mark, it’s psychological violence that will do the most permanent damage. Movies about people messin’ with other people’s minds are never in short supply at Sundance. Here are three whose protagonists will be in therapy for years to come.

sundance2015_knockknock

KNOCK KNOCK

Despite a promising (or at least noteworthy) start with Cabin Fever and Hostel, horror director Eli Roth is now probably best known to the widest audience as the actor who played Sgt. Donny Donowitz, the Bear Jew, in Inglourious Basterds. Unlike most directors, he looks like an actor. He’s also doing well as a producer, helping to bring films like The Last Exorcism and Sacrament to the screen.

In other words, if the whole “writing and directing” thing doesn’t work out — and his latest, the lame-brained Knock Knock, suggests it might not — then at least Roth has other show-business careers to fall back on.

Knock Knock takes a titillating setup (two sexy female strangers show up at a man’s house and proposition him) and turns it into hot, wet garbage that doesn’t even work as exploitation, much less as psychological horror or social commentary. The man, Evan, is played by Keanu Reeves, whose limitations as an actor are only evident when he’s required to do big, intense emotions, which unfortunately this film is full of. Evan’s loving wife and children are away for the weekend when gorgeous Genesis (Lorenza Izzo, Roth’s wife) and Bel (Ana de Armas), soaking wet from being caught in a downpour, knock on his door and ask to use his phone. They are boldly flirtatious, even shocking (“Underwear models are the kind of guys you [screw] when you’re 14,” says one), but Evan amusedly resists their charms until he can’t resist anymore and the inevitable fantasy three-way occurs.

Next morning, the girls take over his posh house, toying with him emotionally and mangling his wife’s artwork. They prevent him from calling the police by claiming to be under 18, a claim that 1) is self-evidently false (I mean good grief, look at them), and 2) only works on dumb guys. They abuse Evan physically and psychologically.

Why? Is it justice for some past misdeed of Evan’s? Something against men in general? No, nothing like that. Genesis and Bel are just malicious, conniving whores, that’s all. Roth and co-writers Guillermo Amoedo and Nicolas Lopez give them no motives, no rationale, no purpose. The result: a story that has no point, and that doesn’t do much to diminish Roth’s reputation as a misogynist. Unmotivated cruelty is too thin a premise to hang a movie on, especially when it’s as hammily acted as this cheap thing is. There are also lazy mistakes in the writing — it’s Father’s Day, but it’s also a long weekend, which doesn’t jibe; the girls chose Evan specifically, but they also went house to house to find a victim at random — but that’s nothing compared to the numerous dumb ways that Evan fails to escape from his easily escapable situation. Then again, I watched the whole movie instead of walking out, so maybe I’m no smarter than he is. Grade: D+

sundance2015_stanfordprisonexperiment

THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT

It’s almost too fitting that The Stanford Prison Experiment, just like the 1971 scenario it recreates, starts out well, then gets progressively out of control before dissolving into chaos. The real events offered chilling insight into how people conform to the roles assigned to them; the movie comes across as implausible and hysterical, even though it depicts things that actually happened.

Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), a psychology professor at Stanford University, recruits male students to participate in a two-week study in a simulated prison in a disused campus hallway. Half of the subjects are randomly assigned to be guards, the other half prisoners, and they follow regular prison protocol. Prisoners are referred to by number, not name. Some participants take the role-playing more seriously than others. One guard (Michael Angarano) really gets into it, imitating Strother Martin from Cool Hand Luke; but a smart-alecky prisoner (Ezra Miller) treats the “authority” figures the way a rebellious kid treats a substitute teacher. Zimbardo and colleagues observe the proceedings through video feeds.

This is an ambitious project for talented director Kyle Patrick Alvarez, whose previous films, Easier with Practice and C.O.G., also dealt with problematic subject matter but were much smaller in scale. Visually, Alvarez finds ways to keep things interesting despite the dull and claustrophobic setting, moving the camera up and down corridors, shooting many of the actors in close-up. The cast includes just about every up-and-coming male actor between the ages of 18 and 25 (Tye Sheridan, Moises Arias, Johnny Simmons, Nicholas Braun, Thomas Mann, James Frecheville, Chris Sheffield, Logan Miller, etc.), and the performances are generally good, though they’re hindered by the laughably fake era-appropriate mustaches and hairstyles some of them wear.

But as the prisoners and guards grow more adversarial and the experiment falls into dangerous territory, Tim Talbott’s screenplay collapses into melodramatic outbursts. The complicated dynamics among the participants are oversimplified to the point of being campy. We see X leading to Y leading to Z, but we don’t buy that these actions would produce these results.

What’s more, Zimbardo comes across as recklessly committed to not interfering with the experiment. He responds defensively when a colleague asks a legitimate question about his methodology. To use a psychological term, he seems like a bit of a nut. I half expected the title card at the end to say the real Zimbardo was fired and never worked again, but he actually had a long, illustrious career and is highly esteemed in his field. Whether it’s in the writing, or Crudup’s performance, or maybe even the editing — when things are at their worst in the prison, it keeps cutting to a shot of Zimbardo at the TV monitor, leering with fascination — somewhere, I suspect the portrait of Zimbardo that’s coming across isn’t the one that was intended. Grade: C

sundance2015_stockholmpennsylvania

STOCKHOLM, PENNSYLVANIA

When you hear news stories about long-missing children being found, the joy you feel for the parents probably overshadows the murkier issues. For a child who lived for years with an abductor, being uprooted from that familiar situation and taken “home” must be jarring. What about a child who was taken at such a young age that she doesn’t remember her real parents?

That’s the idea at the center of Stockholm, Pennsylvania, a sincere but convoluted drama by first-time writer-director Nikole Beckwith. It begins with 22-year-old Leanne (Saoirse Ronan) being delivered to her parents, Marcy (Cynthia Nixon) and Glen (David Warshofsky), after living for 17 years with a man named Ben (Jason Isaacs), who kept her in a basement and told her the outside world had ended. Ben renamed her Leia. It’s the only name she ever remembers having.

Leia, as her reluctant parents must now call her, isn’t just ill at ease with them, but with society as a whole. As seen in theatrically staged flashbacks, Ben educated her, but he controlled her access to information, deceiving her about many things and limiting her experience to the basement (she’s never seen a toaster, for example). She’s now aloof and alien, like a species in the wrong habitat, mistrusting of anyone but Ben. She’s quick-witted and logical, has no patience for her parents or her court-ordered psychiatrist (Rosalind Chao), and always outwits them in conversations. She comprehends that Marcy and Glen are her parents, but her only emotional attachment is to the one person she’s had any interactions with for the last 17 years — the man who’s now in prison.

Marcy has the hardest time coping with the new Leia, and the film hints delicately at the strain these years have caused on her and Glen’s marriage. It’s Marcy whose actions drive the film’s second half, which is where Beckwith’s sympathetic exploration of complex, difficult emotions turns into Lifetime movie territory. Marcy, her efforts to bond with her daughter failing, tries controlling her the way Ben did. Whether it’s for a logical reason (this is what Leia is used to, so maybe we should introduce her gradually to the idea of self-determination), or because Marcy is desperate and nutty, isn’t clear. Nixon’s performance dances on the edge of histrionics, but Ronan is good as a steely-eyed, emotionally restrained young woman. The story ends in a laudably provocative way, but the almost-campy plot mechanisms leading to it make it hard to take it very seriously. Grade: C+

The following two tabs change content below.
Eric D. Snider
Eric has been a film critic since 1999, and a beard wearer since 2008. He holds a degree in journalism and used to work in "the newspaper industry," back when that was a thing.