“Knox Goes Away” is a silky and entrancing thriller directed by its star, Michael Keaton — but as soon as I heard the film’s premise, I’ll admit I was skeptical. Keaton plays an underworld hit man who is diagnosed with dementia. That sounds a bit trendy, and more than that it sounds like a stunt premise. One almost automatically envisions it in somewhat comic terms. But “Knox Goes Away” doesn’t traffic in comedy — or exaggerated reality. In addition to being a noir that holds you exactly the way a noir should, it may be one of the best dramas about dementia I’ve ever seen.
We meet John Knox (Keaton), a contract killer with manners as soft as his heart is hard, just as he’s starting to experience symptoms. At a diner with his fellow hit man, the gnarly but loyal Muncie (Ray McKinnon), he asks the waitress for a cup of coffee, forgetting that there’s one right in front of him.
But he knows something is up. That’s why he’s flying to San Francisco the next day for an appointment with a noted neurologist. After administering memory tests and a CT scan, the doctor has a diagnosis: Knox is in the early stages of Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease, a neurodegenerative disorder for which is there is no cure. What’s more, it’s a rapidly progressive syndrome; the doctor gives him not months but weeks before his mind is gone. The news is devastating (the film doesn’t shrink from the emotional toll this takes on its hero), but it also lends the story the quality of a gently ticking time bomb.
Keaton just turned 72, and with his sandpaper skin and gray AstroTurf hair, he looks, from certain angles, a bit more wizened than he once did. Yet he’s still spry, with a gleam of ice-pick authority. And he’s still a fantastic actor. In “Knox Goes Away,” Keaton gives a beautifully psychological performance, always cueing us to what the hit man is thinking, and to the subtle ways he compensates for his moments of mental confusion. For Knox is going on one last mission, and it’s not a professional assignment. He needs to save his son, who has just committed a murder. The script, by Gregory Poirier, is tautly clever and original, and Keaton directs it with a cunning and skill that are quietly hypnotic. Sometimes actors make good filmmakers; in “Knox Goes Away,” Michael Keaton is a total filmmaker.
Early on, Knox and Muncie are headed out for a job, and when Knox enters the bathroom where the target is, there’s another person there (a woman the target picked up), but he kills her too, because that’s the way these things go. You’re trigger-ready or you’re dead. But then Knox carries that attitude over to the moment when someone else enters the apartment — and just like that, he has killed his partner. Because he forgot he was there.
This is the sign that he’s got to call it quits. He’s going to cash out. But “Knox Goes Away” is a noir, so you roll with the extravagant events the way you do in a ’40s noir. Miles (James Marsden), the estranged son Knox hasn’t seen in years, arrives at his door with his bloody hand wrapped in a towel. Some scurrilous fellow met Miles’ 16-year-old daughter, Kaylee (Morgan Bastin), online and got her pregnant, and when Miles paid a visit to this statutory predator, he wound up stabbing and killing him. His blood and fingerprints are all over the place. The police will be at the crime scene before you know it. But Knox, while he still has more memory than not, is going to do what he does. He’s going to take the ugly situation and fix it.
His plan is spectacularly ingenious — and part of it is that we see him doing it, visiting the apartment of the murdered predator, knocking out the security guard in the surveillance booth and changing the time code on key footage, then taking the bloody kitchen knife, a glass, and strands of hair and putting them all in baggies. Yet even as we monitor this meticulous “clean-up,” we don’t understand what he’s doing. Especially when he takes all that evidence and plants it…inside the home of his son. We think: Wait a minute, his son committed this gruesome killing, and now Knox is “saving” him by framing him for that very murder?
Keaton stages all of this with maximum intrigue. Suzy Nakamura is sharp and witty as the police detective in charge of both cases (the hit that killed three people, which Knox has hastily set up to make it look like they all killed each other, as well as the predator murder). She tacks the clues together right along with the audience. But Knox, a Gulf War veteran with degrees in English and history (he’s a sociopath with hidden layers of character), is always a step ahead. Keaton makes him a hit man whose mind is slipping away but what’s left of it is still faster than anyone else’s.
He keeps forgetting obvious things: names, a word as simple as “address” (he fumbles around and says “number”), what his car looks like, the afternoon appointment with the Polish sex worker (Joanna Kulif) he has kept every Thursday for the last four years. He’s losing it, and fast, yet in a strange way the incipient dementia focuses him, the way that Leonard Shelby’s amnesia focused him in “Memento.” Every brain cell Knox has left is concentrated on carrying out his master plan, every step of which he has written down in a notebook, so that he follows his own (forgotten) orders.
As a hit-man thriller, “Knox Goes Away,” in my opinion, leaves David Fincher’s meticulously engineered but rather hollow “The Killer” in the dust. That’s because Keaton, in every scene, blends execution with humanity. There’s a powerful sense of unstated sadness at the core of his performance: regret for the life he’s losing, but also for the life he already lost — the life with his ex-wife (Marcia Gay Harden) and son that he could have had. “Knox Goes Away” is an absorbing entertainment, but part of the reason it’s such a good movie about dementia is that so much of it isn’t about dementia. We’re plugged into the finesse of Knox’s plan, the brain power that put it together. It’s our moviegoing pleasure centers that don’t want to see that slip away.