Yet another actor-director at TIFF! That was big this year, gee, I wonder why? Michael Keaton directs his first feature since 2008’s The Merry Gentleman with Knox Goes Away, a thriller about a hit man battling dementia in a race to save his son. (It was interesting to see Knox and Hit Man on the same day, as one film contributes to the myth of the capable and accessible contract killer and the other flatly debunks it.) Keaton, starring as his own leading man, plays John Knox, a hit man diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare but rapid form of dementia. Given mere weeks to sort his life out before his brain fails him totally, Knox finds himself entangled in two murders gone awry.
With his mental state already deteriorating, Knox makes a fatal mistake at one of his assigned jobs, leaving a triple homicide behind him and the keen Detective Park (Suzy Nakamura) on his trail. As if this isn’t bad enough, Knox’s long-estranged son, Miles (James Marsden), shows up at his door, covered in blood, having committed a crime of passion against the grown ass man who seduced his teen daughter. While attempting to “cash out” before his mind goes, Knox also must figure out how to save Miles. It’s a good setup, though not all parts of the story are made equally.
The best elements are the cat and mouse game between Park and Knox, who are not squaring off on an even playing field, but only Knox knows that (some of the time), and the representation of mental deterioration on screen. Keaton uses an escalating series of visual and sound cues to signal Knox’s confusion and worsening mental state, and in his performance, he captures the teetering mental balance of a man who only sometimes realizes he’s slipping. There is also a literal ticking clock element, as the steady tick of a watch echoes in the sound design, and the thumping noise of an MRI machine fades in and out with Knox’s self-awareness. It’s a lot of gimmicks, arguably one too many, but combined with Keaton’s sensitive performance as a capable man losing his grip on himself, it’s effective.
Less effective is the supporting cast. James Marsden and Al Pacino are underutilized and underserved by the script (from writer Gregory Poirier), though it is nice that for once, the women in the film are decently written. Nakamura is fantastic as Park, and Marcia Gay Harden is excellent as Knox’s ex-wife. She and Keaton have an outstanding scene mid-film that serves as an effective goodbye between their characters. It is a notable waste to have Marsden and Pacino in a film—any film—and give them so little to do as they have here, but Nakamura and Harden get a little scenery to chew on and they both make the most of it. Knox is a showcase for Keaton, though the story would be better served if the ensemble was more fully rounded out.
And then there is the problem with the lighting. This is a dark film, tonally and literally. Knox Goes Away is so dark, it is physically difficult to see many scenes. It’s just plain underlit. I assume Keaton was going for that kind of naturalistic look so many directors are fond of but is almost impossible to see as an audience. There are ways to shoot scenes in dimly lit rooms, or outside at night, and still make them visually legible to the audience, but Knox has a bad case of Game of Thrones’ “it’s just your TV”-itis. But it’s not my TV! This was a professional movie cinema! This movie is dark as sh-t!
It's too bad the lighting is so distractingly bad, because generally, Knox Goes Away is a solid film. It’s mostly memorable for its depiction of dementia and the way that enhances the dramatic tension around whether or not Knox will get away with his plan to save Miles. It’s not just a matter of fooling Detective Park, he also has to keep from blowing it because of his failing memory. He’s racing against himself as much as he is Park. As an actor, this is one of Michael Keaton’s best performances, but as a director, the crap lighting is a serious failing. No points awarded for making your film nearly impossible to see.
This review was published during the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes of 2023. The work being reviewed would not exist without the labor of writers and actors.