Sunday, July 14, 2024

“THE KNIFE”

THE STORY – All Chris wants is to carve a promising future for his beloved wife Alex, and their two girls; a young family chasing the American Dream. One fateful night, Chris’ entire world is shaken to its core as a stranger mysteriously shows up in their home. Distressed by the events of the night and the revelations seemingly at every turn, the family must also contend with the steadfast Detective Carlsen, who’s eager to solve the mystery of their intrusion.

THE CAST – Nnamdi Asomugha, Melissa Leo, Aja Naomi King, Manny Jacinto, Amari Price & Aiden Price

THE TEAM – Nnamdi Asomugha (Director/Writer) & Mark Duplass (Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 103 Minutes


Taut and intentional, never biding its time for the sake of drawing out its perhaps inevitable conclusion, Nnamdi Asomugha’s directorial debut, The Knife, places choice and consequence at the forefront. Its opening moments focus on Chris, a husband and father of three, as he notes how the two are forever connected. It sounds simple — that our choices have consequences — but the particular choices in question aren’t quite as direct as, say, whether or not it’s more cost-effective to make coffee at home or to grab it from Starbucks before the morning rush. No, the choices Chris and his family make over the course of a fateful evening that will unknowingly alter the fabric of their lives forever are far more complicated. What they face proves that what often presents itself as logical is, in fact, wholly perilous. It all depends on the situation.

Chris (Asomugha) returns home after a long day of work, smelling of beer. His daughters (Amari and Aiden Price) smell the familiar, forbidden odor and note that “Daddy” isn’t supposed to be drinking beer; Chris “isn’t himself” when he drinks, so as far as his wife, Alex (Aja Naomi King), is concerned, he’s been abstinent of late. He asks his girls not to tell their mother before making his way to bed, where a flirty Alex awaits. They toy with the idea of sex before calling it a night, though Chris, a fitful sleeper, struggles to make it through the night.

Chris awakens to a rustling noise coming from his kitchen. The house is a work in progress, so the slightest movement tends to cause an echoing noise that could wake a comatose patient, let alone an insomniac. The click of a turning knob, a door creaking as it revolves on its hinges, the rumble of something – someone? – rifling through the kitchen drawers in search of… of what? A natural protector, Chris goes to investigate, snatching his pocket knife off the nightstand before venturing toward the sound. He discovers a woman in a yellow coat standing over the sink; she seems distressed, as though not even she realizes how she got into this house. Chris tells her that she is not only in the wrong house, but she picked the wrong house. Is he threatening her? If so, perhaps it’s justified; he’s a Black man, she’s a white woman, and she’s broken into his home. But it’s a foreboding sign of what could come should Chris elect to use force to remove her. After all, Chris is a Black man in America, a broken system that, despite the postured progress the country claims it’s making, has a predetermined outcome for men like him.

“The Knife” hard cuts from this interaction to an off-screen thud, which wakes Alex and sends her rushing to the kitchen as Chris shouts for her to call 9-1-1. We don’t see what caused the intruder to end up on the floor, only Chris standing over her in a panic, the knife he had brought as his mode of defense sitting inches from her crumpled body. That Asomugha and his editor, Dana Congdon (“The Basketball Diaries” and “Sylvie’s Love,” which served as Asomugha’s acting breakout), elect to have the use of the film’s titular blade unfold off-screen is the sign of an assured storyteller, and it only serves as a sign for what is to come: A tense, disturbing hour of interrogation from Melissa Leo’s Detective Carlsen, whose only aim is to uncover the truth, no matter how many versions she is given from everyone in the house.

This is where the film is at its best, not solely due to one of Leo’s best performances – Carlsen is steely and menacing while simultaneously posing as a collected, sympathetic presence aiming only to uncover precisely what happened here – but because it depicts the way life can rapidly switch from a plodding stasis to a state of tangled disarray. As Carlsen individually probes each family member individually, the gaps in Chris’ story begin to widen. He and Alex claim the intruder had the knife in her possession when she entered their home; why, then, does Chris have an identical knife in his workshop? He says nothing of his drinking problem, yet his daughter makes a point to mention it while trying to protect her father. In a similar vein, one of the film’s most startling scenes sees Chris attempting to bolt to the bathroom to retrieve his daughter’s inhaler, and his sharp, startled reaction causes the cops in the home (a suspicious, stoic Manny Jacinto plays the officer who first arrived on the scene, and delivers a striking turn while operating in relative silence). Chris settles matters with reassurance that he only hopes to help his daughter, so why must he fish about the sink’s drain for pain pills that washed away earlier in the night?

Appropriately, these choices have predestined repercussions for a film that is focused on consequences. Doubt creeps in, not just for law enforcement but within the family itself. No longer is everyone innocent until proven guilty, but the opposite. Taking place throughout one night and in one location, “The Knife” carries with it a given conclusion: One way or another, this mystery will be solved, and Carlsen isn’t too hell-bent on happening upon a resolution naturally. She’s a good detective, but not particularly incorruptible, and doesn’t mind bending the rules to achieve her ultimate goal, that being a closed case. While speaking to one of the girls, she notes in the interview’s recording that their mother is present, a legal requirement when it comes to interrogating a minor. All the while, Alex is in the other room with the rest of the family, a choice with a consequence, one that, in this case, brings Carlsen closer to the truth.

As with any debut, Asomugha’s effort is riddled with clichés and narrative shortcomings – we need not see the knife as many times as we do in a film called “The Knife,” and Jacinto’s wary glances aren’t necessary given how much we already know about what actually unfolded before the authorities arrived on the scene. But these aren’t bugs, nor are they features. They’re more so indications that Asomugha has an understanding of narrative unease but not all of the tools that it requires to keep things subtle and, ultimately, surprising.

Nevertheless, “The Knife” sets out to unsettle and succeeds in doing so. It strikes me as the sort of film that will never have more of an under-the-radar impact on curious audiences but will effortlessly drive both conversations around its messages and intrigue in the team that crafted them. For Asomugha, whose acting work in “Sylvie’s Love” was as winning as it was revelatory, it represents a serious step forward as an artist, the kind that is in tune with the story he wishes to tell, the lengths he needs to go in order to capitalize on its darkest, most pivotal moments, and has a feel for what it takes to deliver an intrinsically compelling thriller. “The Knife” is brisk but never rushed, predictable but never sloppily so, and confident without ever becoming hubristic. It’s as engaging a work of suspense as I’ve seen this year, a thoughtful, socially-conscious work that eludes action in favor of conversational, orchestral tension. In short, it’s not to be missed.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Asomugha continues to make a name for himself in the cinematic space with a strong performance, script, and directional vision. The film oozes with tension and confidence in equal measure for its entire 79-minute runtime. Leo's turn as a determined, chilling detective is some of the best work of her career.

THE BAD - It's slightly overreliant on its narrative shortcomings and clichés; you'd like it to give the audience more credit, for it's not all that complicated to deduce where things are headed.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 7/10

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Asomugha continues to make a name for himself in the cinematic space with a strong performance, script, and directional vision. The film oozes with tension and confidence in equal measure for its entire 79-minute runtime. Leo's turn as a determined, chilling detective is some of the best work of her career.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>It's slightly overreliant on its narrative shortcomings and clichés; you'd like it to give the audience more credit, for it's not all that complicated to deduce where things are headed.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>7/10<br><br>"THE KNIFE"