A Puzzling Misfire From Michael Keaton

Sep 19, 2023

This review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist.It is safe to say that we are living in a new era of hitman movies from the John Wick franchise to David Fincher’s The Killer, and Richard Linklater’s Hit Man. On the small screen, we have Bill Hader’s incredible dark comedy Barry, where a hitman finds his calling in the LA acting scene. Let’s face it, when haven’t hitman movies been cool? Sure, there were those two crappy video game movies starring Timothy Olyphant and Rupert Friend, and yeah there was that pretty dumb hitman romcom starring Sam Rockwell and Anna Kendrick, but beyond that, hitman stories are great. Michael Keaton likely believes this as well, as can be seen by his latest film Knox Goes Away, his first directorial effort since The Merry Gentleman in 2008.

Knox Goes Away tells the story of John Knox (Keaton), an aging hitman whose memory is rapidly failing him due to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a form of dementia that moves at a much faster rate than usual. Even with the diagnosis, John is still trying to do his job to the best of his ability, but his memory loss is constantly getting in the way. Thankfully, he finds his shot at redemption when his estranged son Miles Knox (James Marsden) shows up at his door pleading for his help after killing the man who knocked up his teenage daughter. John is able to cover up the murder, but his good intentions only take him so far as his son soon becomes wrapped up in his criminal life as well. John also brings in his old friend Xavier (Al Pacino) in order to help tie up loose ends, especially as his memory is in a state of free fall.

Nobody Comes Out of ‘Knox Goes Away’ Unscathed

Keaton is undoubtedly a terrific actor as his unique charisma and distinct screen presence have always been able to elevate the characters he plays. Since his Oscar-nominated performance in Birdman, he’s done an effective job of being able to star in both prestige fare like Spotlight and The Founder and more commercial plays like Spider-Man: Homecoming and the underrated action flick The Protégé. Hell, he arguably just gave the strongest performance of his career in the 2021 Hulu miniseries Dopesick for which he won his first Emmy. That’s what makes his decision to not only star in but also to direct Knox Goes Away so damn weird. There’s a terrific lead performance within Keaton for this particular role, one where he can take his on-screen presence in a different route, playing a character in a much more vulnerable and less confident position. However, while he’s serviceable enough, something just feels a little bit off and not in an intentional way either. In the hands of a filmmaker that he’s had success with in the past like John Lee Hancock or Tom McCarthy, maybe his performance may have come across as more believable. It’s not like Keaton is a bad actor, he’s a national treasure. This is the man who played both Batman and Beetlejuice just a year apart from each other. This is an actor with some serious range, but he ultimately feels miscast here.

However, that’s nothing compared to Marsden’s inclusion in the film. While there could be some recency bias from Jury Duty, he is almost always a welcome presence in just about every movie and show that he pops up in. As for his work in Knox Goes Away, neither Keaton nor screenwriter Gregory Poirier quite know what to do with him. Marsden’s character is supposed to be fragile and unpredictable as he is a man who killed someone in an act of blind rage and is willing to embarrass his family by getting into altercations while trying to have lunch at a diner. Marsden has played smarmy roles before like in Dead to Me and Anchorman 2. For as sweet and genuine as he can be, he’s also always been great at playing an asshole. Yet in Knox Goes Away, it’s extremely hard to buy Marsden in the role he’s given. His charm is completely absent and it’s just painful to see in this kind of role. Pacino also pops in for a few scenes as Xavier, and as entertaining as he is in his role, the story never really knows what it wants to do with his character either.

‘Knox Goes Away’ Is Too Dull To Ever Be Engaging
Image via TIFF

A hitman with memory loss is such a creative premise that could’ve led to an exciting and engaging thriller. Hitmen in movies are always presented as characters who work with precision, and everything is planned out carefully. Throwing a monkey wrench in like dementia is a fresh take on the kind of movie that we’re used to seeing time and time again. Keaton’s direction just feels too meandering and slow for the audience to ever become fully engaged with whatever is happening on screen. There are a couple of sequences, particularly as the film reaches its conclusion, that show a lot more promise in Keaton’s filmmaking, with these scenes feeling effective and exciting, but they come far too late. At that point, the film feels broken beyond repair.

The film just never knows whether it wants to present itself as a neo-noir or a dark comedy. It is as if Michael Mann and the Coen Brothers teamed up to make a movie together, and while both are excellent filmmakers in their own right, their ways of telling stories are far different. Knox Goes Away attempts to have the best of both worlds but fails at both. It squanders far too much of its potential to even warrant giving the film a try. There’s an interesting story in here, and a far better Keaton performance within it too, but it is the kind of thriller that lacks the tension and excitement that it needed.

Rating: D

The Big Picture

Knox Goes Away suffers from miscasting, with Michael Keaton and James Marsden struggling to fully embody their respective roles. The film’s premise of a hitman with memory loss has potential, but Michael Keaton’s meandering and slow direction fails to engage the audience. Knox Goes Away tries to blend neo-noir and dark comedy elements, but ultimately falls short in delivering the tension and excitement it needed.

Knox Goes Away had its World Premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

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