One trend that has been emerging at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival has been the directorial debuts of very famous actors, be it Anna Kendrick exploring traumatic gender dynamics in the framework of a serial killer thriller, or Chris Pine playing a poolman with OCD who stumbles into a Chinatown-level mystery. The results have been exciting, watching performers we’ve seen evolve on screen embrace their storytelling instincts as directors. And to that pile, we add Batman and Birdman icon Michael Keaton, who directs and stars in a crime thriller with a gimmick that’s executed seamlessly and carried to a shocking but satisfying finish.
Gregory Poirier wrote Knox Goes Away, which follows a paid assassin John Knox (Keaton) at a time when he likely has to cash out and hang up his firearms. He’ll only tell his partner (Ray McKinnon) that the reasons are personal, but the audience learns the truth: Knox has been diagnosed with a rapid form of Alzheimer’s, and his doctor gives him weeks – not months – to get his affairs in order before his mind gives up on him.
The memory loss gimmick easily could be mishandled, but Keaton subtly weaves the effects into his story and doesn’t exploit it for short-term gain. Right from the opening shot, the concept of Knox forgetting things is established, and then small gestures made by the character keep reminding us that it’s an issue that has to be dealt with. It made me think of Christopher Nolan’s Memento, one of the director’s best, which saddled its main character with a memory issue. But Knox Goes Away uses the plot device to different effect, and knows when to employ it to generate the most suspense.
The main story grows more personal with the introduction of John Knox’s family, and here, Keaton wisely surrounds himself with heavy hitters in supporting roles. James Marsden appears as Knox’s estranged son, who comes to his father with a very serious problem. Marcia Gay Harden anchors her few scenes as Knox’s ex-wife, who wants nothing to do with him (but can’t fully hide the fact that she still cares deeply for him). And Heat legend Al Pacino holds a significant part in Keaton’s drama, which I’ll leave for you to discover.
At the heart of it all is a rock-solid Michael Keaton performance. Like his direction, he’s economical, unfussy, sturdy, but lacking flash. Knox Goes Away has no frills, and is utilitarian like the problem-solver that Keaton plays, a man who needs enough time to clean up his messes, if his mind will allow him. And for the most part, it holds you in its palm. There’s a plot turn halfway through the third act that makes us think we’ve misread everything that has been happening, and that Knox might not be the man Keaton was putting forward. But the script rights itself, and the threat of Knox Goes Away falling flat on its face… well, goes away. We’re left with a showcase for Keaton, the actor, that announces him as a competent if unremarkable director with a nose for solid material.
More from the 2023 Toronto Film Festival:
Ava DuVernay’s Origin is a deeply emotional drama.
Dream Scenario features one of Nicolas Cage’s best performances.
Maddie Ziegler takes a big risk in the bold sex comedy Fitting In.