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Knox Goes Away

In his second directorial effort, the underwhelming “Knox Goes Away,” Michael Keaton portrays a heady hitman diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of dementia. His illness is so grave, when he’s finally diagnosed, he’s told he only has a few weeks to get his affairs in order. It’s a fascinating premise by screenwriter Gregory Poirier, one that is methodically and quietly built, but ultimately loses any grit, atmosphere, suspense, or emotion it could possibly carry because of a few narrative headscratchers. Even Keaton, usually a sure bet, doesn’t land what the movie is selling. 

This film needed to be a complete character study. An intellectual with PhDs in English and History and a Gulf War veteran, Knox is already enough of an enigma to pull our interest. Though we get some idea of his everyday life—he has a standing appointment every Thursday with a call girl (Joanna Kulig)—it’s minimal in comparison to what his background teases. Instead, the film diverts attention from Knox in lieu of a trite subplot: It’s been years since Knox has seen his estranged son Miles (James Marsden), who suddenly comes to his front door bloody and battered, and panting. Miles has just killed the man who raped his daughter, and he needs his dad, who knows about these kind of things, to cover it up. 

The subplot is an all-too obvious through line to retrace Knox’s life as he faces mortality. But the movie doesn’t even get that right. There are less scenes with Marsden and Keaton than you’d expect, and less opportunities to discover the inner workings of his dad before they totally dissipate. Keaton spends much of the film enacting a convoluted plan of subterfuge that’ll require the help of an old friend (a soporific Al Pacino) so he can remember it. Once again, that would be a great premise, if the twist weren’t so obvious 45 minutes into the film. What remains is a cold character study uninterested in its primary character, sunken by an all too predictable script. 

There are surprisingly even more cracks to be discovered: Keaton directs even further attention from Knox by focusing on the two detectives working to catch him. Suzy Nakamura plays the smarter, more observant of the two, and is actually a welcomed sight in this subdued action flick, if only because she has an edge to her character. But we come out knowing more about her character’s biography than Knox’s, particularly the immigrant aspirations she had to deal with from her overwhelming parents and the casual workplace sexism she encounters. Normally, I’m down for some elements of cultural specificity. Here, it’s inorganic to the film.

These glaring shortcomings and clumsy missteps would be fine if this film weren’t so garish to look at. Flat photography and ungainly cuts undo the few moments where Keaton deploys himself to dispatch some goons. None of the compositions are compelling and the visual language, whether through lighting or a sense of the mise en scene, offer any compelling information, memorable looks, or a feeling of the noir sensibilities it’s working to evoke through its woozy jazz score. 

It really all depends on Keaton giving a serviceable performance to salvage whatever is left, but even he falls short. For a character on the brink of losing himself, Keaton gives Knox too much control. It’s a calm lucidity that never approaches the magnitude of what emotions the character could be feeling, making one feel that in “Knox Goes Away,” he was never really here.  

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at RogerEbert.com. Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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