THE STORY – After a job goes horribly wrong, John Knox resigns himself to the knowledge that his contract killing days are over and starts gathering his assets to cash out. One night, though, his estranged son, Miles, shows up at his door. Covered in blood and barely able to speak, he begs his father for help covering up a violent crime. Knox sees only one way out, developing a tricky scheme with multiple steps that require precise execution. He enlists the confidence of his friend Xavier to keep him on track and begins a race against the clock — and his quickly deteriorating condition — as the police begin to close in with their investigation.
THE CAST – Michael Keaton, Al Pacino, Marcia Gay Harden, James Marsden, Suzy Nakamura, John Hoogenakker, Joanna Kulig, Ray Mckinnon & Lela Loren
THE TEAM – Michael Keaton (Director) & Gregory Poirier (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 114 Minutes
John Knox (Michael Keaton) is a hitman with problems. His biggest problem is that his memory is rapidly declining as he succumbs to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, but he has two other problems to make it even worse. On what was supposed to be his last job, he had a momentary lapse in memory that resulted in him killing his partner, and not long after cleaning that up as best he could, his estranged son (James Marsden) shows up on his doorstep covered in blood, having just killed a man who seduced his underage daughter online and had sex with her. Knox only sees one way out, one that requires very specific things done in a very specific order at very specific times. He asks his friend Xavier (Al Pacino) for help keeping himself on track, but even with Xavier’s help, will Knox be able to hold onto his mind long enough to cover up both murders and still make the clean exit from the business he was hoping for?
“Knox Goes Away” marks Keaton’s second feature as a director, and while he has some good ideas on how to make a film visually interesting, they don’t fully work. Cinematographer Marshall Adams captures some unique angles of the many complicated, mysterious things Knox must do to execute his plan, but not enough to sustain it as a consistent visual theme. The visual conceit that illustrates Knox’s memory lapses is a good idea in theory, folding time in on itself so that we feel some of the confusion that Knox’s doctor describes early on, how he will be feeling something without knowing why, as the feeling lasts long beyond the incident that caused it. It doesn’t really make sense, though, especially since Gregory Poirier’s screenplay doesn’t do anything with this idea at all.
The film feels like a series of missed opportunities. The premise is fantastic: how does someone who must exert maximum control over every situation in order to ensure his survival survive when he doesn’t have complete control over his own brain? However, in execution, the film kneecaps itself by ramping up tension in other ways. Knox’s mental deterioration is enough of a ticking clock on its own to provide suspense. Still, the screenplay gives more weight to other elements, like the police investigation into both murders, Knox’s son’s mental breakdown over having killed somebody, and the creeping possibility that Knox’s closest confidantes — Xavier and an Eastern European escort (Joanna Kulig) whom Knox has been seeing once a week for the past four years — might con him out of his going-away money. Despite all these supposedly suspenseful story elements, the film is too slowly paced to gather any tension. Knox’s plan is kept purposefully vague, and every new piece of it we see adds excitement and suspense, but everything else gets more screentime, zapping the film of its driving force. You’d expect “Knox Goes Away” to be a ticking-clock thriller, especially since it opens with the sound of a ticking clock, but, instead, it comes off more like an incredibly morose character study, weighed down by the lead character’s mental ailment, instead of using it to generate interest.
This wouldn’t be a problem if the performances were good, but everyone seems to be in a different film altogether. Marsden goes big with over-the-top tears and emotional outbursts. In contrast, Pacino manages to tone down his own propensity to go over the top, keeping his brief appearances even-keeled. Kulig is the very picture of sexy detachment, while Marcia Gay Harden is prim forthrightness as Knox’s ex-wife. As the lead cop on the investigation, Suzy Nakamura brings more out of the screenplay’s deadpan humor than anyone else besides Keaton himself. For his part, Keaton is all cool, minimalistic precision that slowly gives way to forlorn confusion. All of these performances work on their own or one-on-one with each other, but when more than two characters have to share the screen, everything falls apart, with too much conflicting energy bouncing between them. While that could be exciting, it instead feels exhausting, hurt by the film’s stodgy pacing, which drags everything out far longer than it should. “Knox Goes Away” just can’t seem to put its best foot forward, even when Knox’s grand plan is finally revealed, leading to an ending that would have been more impactful if the film had actually been structured as a character study instead of a thriller. The film’s disparate parts are all out of alignment, leading to a film about the loss of memory that you’ll forget as quickly as Knox himself would.