‘The Knife’ Review: A Nightmarish Evening Upends a Black Family’s Sense of Safety in Unnerving Debut

A palpable tension permeates Nnamdi Asomugha’s unsettling feature directorial debut The Knife. It’s evident from the opening sequence, in which Chris (Asomugha), a young Black father, returns to his family after a long day of work. As he slinks into his daughters’ bedroom to say goodnight, the tension holds. It’s still there when he snuggles next to his wife, Alex (How to Get Away With Murder and Lessons in Chemistry star Aja Naomi King), in bed.

The first disturbances — a turning knob, the creak of a door — ease some of the strain. Chris, an intermittent insomniac, wakes from his slumber, grabs a pocket knife and heads downstairs to investigate the noise. In the kitchen, he encounters an old white woman rummaging through the drawers. What happens next is a blur. Asomugha, working with editor Dana Congdon, abruptly cuts from that moment to the next: the woman’s body on the floor, Chris breathing rapidly, his wife looking stunned, his daughters afraid. As a Black family in America, they have few means of recourse.

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Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, The Knife explores what choice and safety look like for Black people in America. Asomugha, who co-wrote the screenplay with his executive producer Mark Duplass, tackles these familiar themes with a visceral frankness. He includes scenes, especially near the end, that highlight with a chilling matter-of-factness how quickly a life can unravel. Even though Asomugha sometimes capitulates to clichéd narrative choices or visual tropes, The Knife maintains an impressively nauseating level of anxiety.

When Chris calls for an ambulance, the authorities of Towson County, presumably in Maryland, send a cavalcade of police officers instead. Their patrol cars and vans surround the modest home in the suburbs. The agents take the old woman to the hospital, cordon off the premise with yellow tape and search the house for evidence. One officer, played by Manny Jacinto, eyes Chris with suspicion while Detective Carlsen (Melissa Leo), an older woman with a distrustful resting gaze, begins to take testimony from other family members.

The Knife is at its strongest during these interrogative scenes, when the police presence destabilizes Chris’ home. It becomes an unsteady and dangerous site, filled with indicting objects. Pain medication that Chris takes for his back becomes evidence of nefarious activity. The kitchen, where the inciting action took place, turns into a sinister reminder of an irrevocably changed existence.

The detective’s conversation with Chris, Alex and their two children Ryley (Aiden Price) and Kendra (Amari Price) reveals how America’s carceral state works against Black people. The notion of innocence until proven guilty is upended by the system’s violent belief in Black criminality. Asomugha envelops the audience in this claustrophobic reality through close-ups. The intimate perspective evokes the feeling of being in the room as Carlsen uses the family’s testimonies to construct a shocking narrative. Her comments about trying to get to the truth become more sinister with each invocation. The question, then, is: whose truth?

Asomugha opens The Knife with a voiceover from Chris about advice that his grandmother gave him. It goes something like this: Life presents choices and each choice has a consequence. This framing sets The Knife up to be a simpler story than it is. What is a “choice” in a rigged system? As Chris and Alex try to save themselves and their family, Asomugha makes his way toward gripping and complicated queries.

But he meets some speed bumps. Obvious visual choices (repeated flashes to a knife, the weapon in question) and dropped narrative threads (implications of police misconduct remain under-explored) become distractions. The latter especially signals Asomugha trying to tackle more than this brisk 79-minute film can reasonably cover. Although the director makes some interesting points about the swiftness with which a narrative about a life can form, the lack of resolution might leave some viewers frustrated. The story’s ultimate vagueness ends up destabilizing some of the ideas Asomugha telegraphs early on.

Still, the cast delivers. Aiden Price and Amari Price solidly portray siblings under duress, nailing some particularly poignant scenes that show the specific pressures Black children face under this system. Asomugha and King play Chris and Alex as a familiar, upwardly mobile couple reaching for their version of the American dream. Early in the film, they revel in thoughts of raising their kids in a real home. The possibility of losing this future is what makes The Knife a story not just of horror, but of heartbreak.

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