There’s a strong concept and framework to “Knox Goes Away,” in which Michael Keaton directs himself as a hitman with a rare, fast-escalating form of dementia. But it’s is undercut by stilted dialogue and a stultified pace that turns what could have been a fun thriller into an experience that’s sometimes laughably plodding.
Keaton apparently loves to cast himself as assassins with hearts of gold and emotional turmoil, given that he played a similar character in his previous directorial effort “The Merry Gentlemen,” which was released in 2009. Here, he’s John Knox, a L.A.-based gun for hire with an intellectual bent, who learns in the first minutes of the film that he is suffering from Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, giving him only a few weeks before he loses his faculties completely.
The impacts of his diagnosis start to show early on when a job goes awry, but become thematically even more significant when he gets a visit from his estranged son Miles, played by James Marsden. Miles has just killed a man who impregnated his teenage daughter and goes to his dad, who is familiar with these kinds of scrapes, for help. This turn of events gives John an idea of how to both help his son and prepare for the end of his life as we know it, he just has to enact his plan before he can’t remember how to do it. There are a couple of twists and turns along the way, but by the end, sentimentality takes over and any cleverness is lost.
You can see the noirish outline that drew Keaton to this script from Gregory Poirier, and Knox himself is a meaty role that gives an actor the chance to slowly fade away. But the screenplay is a mishmash of tones and tropes that fall completely flat in actors’ mouths.
Knox is a type we’ve seen before: He’s a bad guy with a brain, who apparently has two PhDs, once taught at Bucknell, and also served in the military. He’s visited weekly by a Polish sex worker (Joanna Kulig of “Cold War”) to whom he lends books. Though it’s immediately tempting to roll your eyes at this hackneyed portrayal of an intelligent murderer, Keaton, at least at first, gives him an offbeat charm that is punctured by his growing confusion. Still, while Keaton’s performance is well-executed in the early going, as Knox deteriorates, the actor falls into an over-the-top staging of memory loss where he looks befuddled at every moment. (There were even some laughs at the Toronto International Film Festival premiere audiences at moments where I assume humor was not the goal.)
And yet Keaton’s also one of the only actors on screen that can figure out how to handle the words they are given. Marsden seems lost trying to tackle the wild emotional swings his character goes through, and Suzy Nakamura, as the detective investigating Knox, is done no favors thanks to the thudding exposition she has to deliver. Nakamura is saddled explaining her backstory as both a woman and a person of color for her white colleagues in a way that feels forced — as if the white male filmmakers are trying to prove their diversity bonafides. Hers is a character that is also constantly quipping, which gives the movie a jokey quality that is ill at ease with the grim story around it.
Keaton uses a jazz score that tries to evoke classics of this genre — but almost sounds like parody — and cinematographer Marshall Adams floods the screen with grays and blacks in stark contrast to whatever light source is around. It’s occasionally stylish, but also lacking any distinct personality, like a cookie cutter version of what this kind of movie is supposed to look like — a David Fincher knock-off.
Ultimately, one just gets the sense that “Knox Goes Away” is unsure of what it’s supposed to be. On one hand, it leans into the chillingly gruesome; on the other, it wants to laugh at the grimness of its own scenarios. In some moments, it operates as a strange, misguided commentary on 21st century life, and then turns to a treacly father-son making-amends saga that wants to ape Paul Schrader’s work about solitary men.
Still, there is at least some fun to be had, largely thanks to the presence of Al Pacino as Knox’s friend and boss. Most of “Knox Goes Away” maybe sort of a mess, but the also features a scene of Pacino, in a bubble bath, drinking wine, and eating Chinese food. Perhaps not the kind of draw Keaton was aiming for, but a draw nonetheless.
“Knox Goes Away” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.