The protagonist of Knox Goes Away, starring and directed by Michael Keaton, is one of the most low-energy hired killers in cinema history. There’s reason for this: early on audiences discover that John Knox is suffering from a form of dementia––one that moves much faster than Alzheimer’s, he is told––that will cause him to start losing his memory in a matter of “weeks, not months.” That news would be difficult for anyone, but it’s especially problematic for someone whose livelihood depends on his abilities to act decisively, move covertly, and always cover his tracks.
So it’s not going to be easy for Knox to finish off his career as a hitman and cash out. Worse yet it’s also not easy for audiences to become invested in that process. Knox Goes Away is a sub-par effort that may prove of interest to fans of the actor, but won’t satisfy those seeking a gripping exercise in present-day film noir.
This is Keaton’s second film as a director and, rather oddly, both revolve around hitmen. His first, 2009’s The Merry Gentleman, was a bit more successful though a tad less slick than Knox. After a botched hit (due to his advancing memory loss), Knox realizes it is time to make his exit. What he does not anticipate is the reappearance of his adult son (James Marsden) with blood on his hands and the need for some expert assistance. Meanwhile, a pair of police detectives are on Knox’s trail while also investigating the death involving Knox’s son. Knox reaches out to his old mentor Xavier Crane (a scene-stealing Al Pacino) and formulates a plan that may allow him to extricate himself and save his son before his mind is permanently fogged.
The memory loss element adds a somewhat-fresh touch to the rote killer-wants-out storyline. Yet there’s too much time spent with the detectives investigating the murders, much as Suzy Nakamura and John Hoogenakker give enjoyable performances. There is also too much time spent on Knox’s regularly scheduled Thursday afternoon sessions with a seemingly sweet sex worker (Cold War’s Joanna Kulig). Too many plot holes, too little excitement, zero real mystery.
Knox deeply misses the lovably manic energy Keaton brings to his best films. John Knox should not, of course, be played as broadly as Beetlejuice (not even Bruce Wayne). But the great Keaton portraying a hitman who reacts so quietly and methodically just feels… off. The character is far from passive. Keaton dials it down so severely, though, that Knox feels like he is already gone. His memory loss serves to be annoying, rather than moving, and the character arc is simply not powerful enough to resonate.
There is also too little time spent explaining just how Knox––who holds two PhDs and whose home is lined with bookshelves––became a contract killer in the first place. Yes, the script by Gregory Poirier refers to his Gulf War past, and Pacino’s Xavier Crane speaks wistfully of molding Knox into a hitman. But Knox’s path defies logic, and Poirier and Keaton fail to provide a backstory that fills the gaps.
Which isn’t to suggest Knox Goes Away is so devoid of use. It’s a treat to see Pacino as Knox’s wily mentor; watching the master dine in the bathtub while telling his decades-younger wife “I divorced her before you were born, baby,” is positively divine. Marsden, a comic delight in the recent series Jury Duty, has a few charming moments. And it’s always nice to see Marcia Gay Harden onscreen, even in what’s essentially a one-scene role as Knox’s ex-wife.
And for those who’ve treasured Keaton’s past work, especially his numerous great performances in recent years––most notably in The Founder and Spotlight––the actor is always watchable. Indeed, of late he’s been the best thing in weak movies (The Flash, The Protege, American Assassin). Keaton has more than earned the right to star in and direct whatever he chooses, and it’s easy to see why the complexities (on paper) of Knox Goes Away proved appealing. With a little more Keaton charm, a sharper script, and a bit more filmmaking verve, Knox may have succeeded.
Knox Goes Away premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.