A hitman with dementia trying to carry out one last job is the kind of premise that could easily go off the rails and devolve into parody. But in the capable hands of director and star Michael Keaton, it turns out to be the perfect setup for an engrossing drama. Knox Goes Away is a film with incredibly strong characters whose arcs are well worth following even if the film travels a somewhat expected course. The hook isn’t keeping the audience guessing what will happen next, but instead delivering the satisfaction of how it all plays out.
John Knox (Keaton) lives a relatively solitary life but has warm individual relationships with a number of different people, including his partner (Ray McKinnon), a prostitute (Joanna Kulig) who comes for a weekly visit, and an old friend (Al Pacino) he knows he can trust. He’s a man who makes fun of someone who still enjoys reading the newspaper, reminding him that he can get all the news he wants on his phone, yet he possesses an extensive book collection, even loaning a new recommendation to the prostitute each week. He has two Ph.Ds but he’s evidently excellent at a very different chosen line of work.
His fragile memory becomes obvious from the first scene, where he asks a waitress for coffee that’s already sitting next to his plate and then stands by the wrong car as he’s about to leave. A trip to a specialist reveals that he has a condition that should progress rapidly. The details of how it will manifest, typically relegated in other films to white noise as characters struggle to process their diagnoses, are crucial because audiences and Knox experience them together. Flashes indicate lost seconds of time and the feeling of disorientation sets in when Knox isn’t even aware of how much time has passed between what he last remembers happening and the current moment.
Just as Knox’s condition can intensify quickly without warning, the film’s plot follows suit. Having confirmed that he has little time left before his faculties decline, Knox is immediately presented with two challenges, cleaning up a job gone wrong and helping the son (James Marsden) he hasn’t seen in years to cover up his own crime. Utilizing a notepad to write down exactly the kind of information that would lead to certain conviction if found by authorities, Knox prepares to “cash out” and ensure that those he cares most about will benefit from the fortune he has illicitly amassed over the years. Knox may not be a great communicator, particularly with the family members who no longer speak to him, but he’s a master organizer, meticulously plotting everything and then hoping he’ll be able to remember to carry it all out.
Now 72-years-old, Keaton is managing to get some of the best roles of his career. After an Emmy-winning turn as an opioid-addicted doctor in Dopesick, Keaton is more than up for this latest challenge. It’s remarkable to watch how Knox never gets angry, despite the reasons he has to be mad at the world. He’s soft-spoken and distinguished, and also capable of dry humor, like when he tells his doctor that, even if he did blame him for being the messenger, he won’t remember in a week anyway.
The more formulaic elements of the story are enhanced by entertaining additions, namely Suzy Nakamura as a sardonic detective frequently giving her partner (John Hoogenakker) a hard time. Their investigation follows a predictable course but is peppered with witty banter along the way that makes it feel fresh. That’s true of the film as a whole, which finds moments of levity to help balance it but doesn’t overwhelm its effective dramatic tone. Knox Goes Away benefits from productive, tight pacing, and feels like it’s exactly as long as it needs to be to tell this thoroughly engrossing story.
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.