Eli Roth returns to the director’s chair for this remake of 70’s exploitation flick Death Game, this time out starring Lorenza Izzo and Ana de Armas as a pair of minxes who show up in the middle of a stormy night to make Keanu Reeves’s life hell. Reeves’s blissfully wedded father Evan Webber is caught off guard by the women’s increasingly aggressive flirtation, and before he can ship them off in a cab, they force themselves on him and use their sexual encounter as leverage to torture him across a whole weekend.
Employing an intimate setup that ostensibly runs on psychological thrills, Roth leaves the splatter at the door for the first time. Genesis (Izzo) and Bel (de Armas)’s constant threats of blackmail and personal ruin are the scalpels and meat cleavers that slice through the hapless Evan, but even with this change in direction Roth isn’t exactly reinvented himself. His style still relies on juvenile excess more than out-and-out tension, and aside from an uncomfortably prolonged scene in which Evan plays musical chairs to slip away from the handsy duo, Roth barrages us with an endless parade of shrill, sadistic, and flat out aggravating scenes of giggly mayhem. Loudness is Roth’s specialty, and he turns his most annoying tendencies to his advantage by making Knock Knock‘s villains scary by way of sheer obnoxiousness.
The script’s subtext level is also set to blaring, but somehow Roth and co-writers Nicolas Lopez and Guillermo Amoedo step on their own feet, spoiling a potentially psychologically complex setup by shifting Genesis and Bel’s motives from one scene to the next; hinted abused pasts come across as hollow taunts and attempts at dismantling Evan’s life are ruined by their own carelessness. Hard Candy this ain’t. They’re torturing him just because, moment by moment, to provoke the biggest reaction from him. It’s enough to make any viewer scream, much like a frenzied Reeves in what will surely be remembered in days to come as the “Free Pizza” speech.
Roth’s loudness rubs off on Reeves, who shockingly hams it up big time as a happy dad and loving husband before being brought to ruin. The initial scenes of domestic bliss may be forced and awkward, but blame that on the cumbersome writing and atonal direction, lest it be implied that Reeves overacting for a change is a bad thing. His animatedness may be the best thing to come out of a grating movie that is never particularly suspenseful, thrilling, or scary, but only ever disturbingly curious and occasionally darkly comic in a cocked-head sort of way. Try to blame that failure on something else, too, though, lest it be implied that Roth should stick to the torture porn flicks of his salad days.