Knox Goes Away Boasts the Talents of Michael Keaton

Michael Keaton directs and stars in Knox Goes Away. Image courtesy of Saban Films

On the surface, Knox Goes Away matches the well-worn “one last job” crime story springboard. Pulling double duty as the director and lead actor, Michael Keaton is the titular seasoned hitman who wants to cash out and enjoy what time he has left. We’ve seen that dramatic template before, and, let’s be honest, there wouldn’t be much of a movie worth making or watching if that exit strategy went completely according to plan. Alas, Knox Goes Away plays its quest for finality out with a wholly different set of risks challenged by a unique set of time constraints.

John Knox is not a common hired stooge. The Los Angeles veteran of the first Gulf War has two advanced degrees and is a well-read man of philosophy who has earned the nickname “Aristotle.” He lives well, yet estranged from his ex-wife (Pollock Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden) and adult son Miles (James Marsden). His closest companions are his regular job partner (Ray McKinnon), a thief and fixer named Xavier Crane (the sweet get that is Al Pacino), and a Polish prostitute (Joanna Kulig of Cold War) who keeps the sheets and a killer’s heart warm.

Here’s the rub, though. John has noticed enough slips of memory to begrudgingly see a specialist in San Francisco. After an MRI, he gets the jarring diagnosis of having Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare brain disorder that behaves like a rapid form of dementia. He’s given weeks, not months to live. This is the accelerant of the film’s time constraints and chaptered plot delivery.

A man steps inside a cabin door in Knox Goes Away
Michael Keaton directs and stars in Knox Goes Away. Image courtesy of Saban Films

John is told mental gaps will strike the thought-feeling connection and happen in flurries where he may not remember long processes or transitions, like why an unfinished task was started or knowing the reasons why he finds himself in certain rooms or places. Cinematically, these moments flicker with stylish surprise and a timbre that’s more confounding frustration than freaky madness. Keaton, his editor Jessica Hernández, supervising sound editor Kami Asgar (Gran Tourismo) and cinematographer Marshall Adams (Better Call Saul) use a combination of blurred shots, filtered imagery, broken cuts, and unclean sound to immerse the Knox Goes Away’s viewers in character’s disorientation.

Two incidents in Knox Goes Away make matters worse. Knox’s last hit goes terribly wrong, igniting police attention from two sharp and red-assed LAPD detectives (Dodgeball’s Suzy Nakamura and Keaton’s Dopesick co-star John Hoogenakker). Even more out of the blue, Miles comes to John’s doorstep bloody one night asking for help fitting his father’s areas of expertise. The frazzled married man has brutally murdered the catfishing online chat partner who got his teenage daughter (John’s granddaughter) pregnant.

From there, the bulk of the movie’s expounded details sought by the LAPD, Pacino’s helpful involvement, and any ensuing twists surround the covering-up of two very different crimes. Neither job of throwing off scents is easy, and Knox Goes Away gets methodical and even clinical with the DIY methods of evidence disposal and investigation evasion. The boil is slow, but the pursuit from Nakamura and Hoogenakker brims with interest, and the third act pay off is worthwhile.

The humanistic side of Knox Goes Away comes from the main character’s reactionary acceptance with his prognosis and his impetus to set things right before he loses the ability to do it properly. To anyone who asks about his shift of activities, John Knox matches the film’s title to simply saying he’s “going away.” Occasionally, he’ll add a preposition or adverb of measurement like “for a while,” “for good,” or “permanently.” The people he talks to– from his ex-wife to his criminal associates– all take that vagueness differently. Some leave him to his privacy while some read between the lines, fear the worst, and take stock knowing this may be the last time they will see John.

Leaning on this hastened and rapidly emptying hourglass, Michael Keaton has formed a dramatic backbone in Knox Goes Away that is simultaneously blunt and poetic. This is the upcoming Beetlejuice star’s first directorial effort since 2008’s The Merry Gentleman. Composer Alex Heffes (Mamma Mafia) floats a muted trumpet score cue that shapes a grim and fittingly noir vibe between the soft scene-to-scene camera fades. That said, as insightful as it strives, this is still a dive into the spine of a faithless killer, a person distant from the complete sincerity of a hero. Keaton’s stern lead performance and the moral grayness in the script from Gregory Poirier (Rosewood, National Treasure: Book of Secrets) tempers any rooting interests by wisely knowing full redemption is not a possibility. Viewers have to reconcile and settle for a more logical, and therefore, incomplete transformation.

Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing here on Film Obsessive as the Editor-in-Chief and Content Supervisor for the film department. He also writes for his own website, Every Movie Has a Lesson. Don is one of the hosts of the Cinephile Hissy Fit Podcast on the Ruminations Radio Network and sponsored by Film Obsessive. As a school teacher by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a voting member of the nationally-recognized Critics Choice Association, Online Film Critics Society, North American Film Critics Association, International Film Society Critics Association, Internet Film Critics Society, Online Film and TV Association, and the Celebrity Movie Awards.

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