Michael Keaton’s Knox Goes Away is barely saved by a powerful ending, but it still suffers from meandering direction and wasted potential.
It’s ironic that, immediately after watching Richard Linklater’s Hit Man (which is so much fun, by the way), I’m now reviewing a different movie about a killer for hire. Knox Goes Away stars Michael Keaton as Knox, a contract killer who’s diagnosed with a form of dementia that’s escalating rapidly. After this condition causes him to make a drastic mistake on a job, his estranged son (James Marsden) reenters his life, having killed someone in an act of revenge. Knox now has to figure out and execute a plan to tie up both of these loose ends before going away for good, while racing against both his dementia and a police investigation that’s closing in on him.
Keaton, who probably wishes he had dementia to forget he was in The Flash, is also the first-time director of Knox Goes Away, so a lot is riding on him with this film. I was sold solely by what I still believe is a really strong premise. A high-stakes murder cover-up where one false move could mean incarceration or even possibly death, a deteriorating mental state making an already complicated situation even more complicated, and the high potential for increasingly blurred lines and gaps in Knox’s perception to make everything, even the notion of what’s real, so much more intense.
Unfortunately, that potential is nowhere close to being fully realized. Knox Goes Away isn’t a bad movie, and it certainly has plenty of effort going into it, but it’s frustratingly standard. One of the biggest culprits behind that is the pacing. While the first twenty or so minutes go by pretty smoothly, the rate at which new, compelling developments occur exponentially decreases as soon as Knox’s plan is set in motion. You’d think that given how much Knox has to juggle, Knox Goes Away would move at a quick clip, or at least one that generates a strong sense of urgency and confusion. But a majority of the film is glacially slow, but not in a way that builds nail-biting tension. It’s slow because so little of interest is actually happening.
A lot of the film is a blur as Knox sets something unknown up, he catches up with those who question what’s going on with him, we cut back to the police piecing together what we already know, lather, rinse, repeat. There’s an aimless quality to the story’s flow that turns a lot of Knox Goes Away into a bit of an indiscernible blur that doesn’t always seem to know where it’s going … almost like the film itself has dementia. If I was being really generous, I would say that this could very well be the point. If I’m right – and that’s a big “if” – then that’s an absolutely brilliant idea. But in practice, it makes Knox Goes Away often dull to sit through.
I also can’t make such a jump because when the film is obviously trying to convey the effects of dementia, the results are pretty weak. I was so excited to see what tactics Keaton would employ to put us in Knox’s shoes. Maybe it could be like The Father if Anthony Hopkins’s character killed someone (maybe Hannibal Lecter went senile?), where pivotal scenes would be cut out entirely to replicate memory loss, background elements would subtly change, different actors would play the same characters, events would happen out of order … this should be an editor’s field day! But all we really get are jump cuts to moments seconds apart, objects and backgrounds violently blurring once in a while, and Knox’s occasional forgetfulness often being seen from an objective perspective instead of in a way that disorients us as well.
I say “occasional” forgetfulness because Knox’s condition comes up as a roadblock so rarely that I sometimes forgot he even had dementia in the first place! That’s when I knew something was wrong here. Even Keaton’s performance, while being for the most part good, doesn’t really convey a sense of confusion or mental deterioration. He has great chemistry with Marsden, though, who plays the much more constantly panicking son that Knox has to keep talking down while attempting to mend fences with him. Their dynamic shines whenever they’re allowed to be on the screen together.
Nowhere is that more obvious than in the film’s ending. The final 10-15 minutes of Knox Goes Away are not only the best part of the movie by a mile, but they pretty much make the entire film worth watching. This is because the gaps in knowledge we didn’t realize we’d been having are finally filled in, and suddenly a decent number of earlier scenes that seemed routine now have a heavier and even kind of depressing aura about them. They now say so much more about Knox as a character, his connection with his son, and his perception of himself. The last scene between him and his son is devastating on so many levels that it’s its own little masterpiece, both because of this new context and the powerful performances from both actors.
Outside of Keaton and Marsden’s chemistry, the only other part of Knox Goes Away that I found entertaining was the subplot of the police investigation … but not in the way that I think was intended. Suzy Nakamura plays the head of the investigation, and the best way I can think of to describe her character’s dialogue is if an AI program wrote it after pouring through a hardcore liberal’s social media account. She will not hesitate to stop the film in its tracks to remind you that she is a strong Asian woman, or call out someone else for assuming another person’s gender. I’ve made it clear that I do not identify as a conservative and am all for empowering all types of people, but her writing feels so pandering that it actually becomes kind of hilarious.
When it comes to the actual intentional humor of Knox Goes Away, that bag is more mixed than the colors of the TIFF animation that plays right before each screening. There are a handful of lines and deliveries that got a big laugh out of me, with the best one actually coming from Nakamura’s character. But just as many lines and performances, again largely surrounding the police characters, make everyone look actively incompetent and even cartoonish.
I can’t really comment on the cinematography, because it’s mostly just … competent, and little else. Keaton and DP Marshall Adams can form straightforward shots with no issue and light them enough to not make the film look ugly, but there’s nothing that visually interesting to stay in your mind. It all works, but that’s still very disappointing compared to what could have been done here. I guess that’s the entirety of Knox Goes Away in a nutshell. It’s never terrible, but the pacing, occasionally wonky writing, multiple missed opportunities, and overall lack of style hold it back considerably. Still, that ending absolutely elevates it to a point where I can say I’m glad I saw the film. So, if nothing else, I at least appreciate Knox Goes Away for reminding me that movie isn’t over until it’s over.
Knox Goes Away premiered at TIFF on September 11, 2023 and will be released in US theaters on March 15, 2024. Read our list of films to watch at the 2023 Toronto Film Festival!