Tribeca 2024 Review: Solving a Case Starts to Look Like a Crime in Nnamdi Asomugha’s Gripping Thriller “The Knife”

No 12-year-old should have to look up laws regarding self-defense in the middle of the night as Kendra (Amari Price) does in “The Knife,” but it’s her natural instinct to grab the iPad as her father Chris (Nnamdi Asomugha) stands over the body of an intruder in their home, uncertain in a literal sense about what he’s done. With his wife Alex (Aja Naomi King) rushing in immediately after hearing sounds in the kitchen with Kendra and her younger sister Ryley (Aiden Price) soon to follow, Chris struggles to recount what happened just moments earlier, too distraught to process it and perhaps unsure of what he was capable of when the family just recently moved into their first home and the sense of security he thought he was buying was violated so abruptly. There is the obvious narrative hook of whether Chris murdered the stranger or not, but in his auspicious directorial debut that promises much more to come, Asomugha looks past it pretty quickly to find in the blank space where his onscreen alter ego should have an answer for his role in the stranger that lies on his floor, a far more provocative drama as everyone’s assumptions start to set in and bury the possibility of finding the truth.

One has to accept the idea that Chris really does black out for the period in question for “The Knife” to be effective, but Asomugha makes it easy to buy in with both a strong performance in front of and behind the camera where how people process the situation at hand visually is rendered cinematically riveting when the focus is often on what they think but cannot or will not say. (The crucial scene of Chris trying to recount the moment to his loved ones is particularly well done as a tight closeup that zooms in and recoils reflects a hazy mind.) The film may never settle in this regard, but Chris is decisive about reporting the matter to 911 before Alex can remind him he’s “a Black man in America” as the unresponsive body of a white woman lays in their house, and she matches that impulsive decision with one of her own, taking the knife that lies just beyond the intruder’s reach and placing it in her palm upon hearing the police sirens that come along with the ambulance.

It is likely not their good fortune that the younger cop (Manny Jacinto) that first arrives at the scene calls in the more world-weary Detective Frances Carlsen (Melissa Leo, in a welcome return to her “Homicide” mien) for backup, and while she seems as though she would be more inclined to give a white family the benefit of the doubt more than a Black one, “The Knife” shows racism running deeper than anyone could even be conscious of as she makes her way around the house, asking questions and seeming like she owns the place when offering water to the family in their own home. With no foundation of trust to start a frank dialogue, things naturally spiral out of control and police procedure that without context could look like shrewd investigative tactics such as isolating each member to hear their side of the story separately suddenly shows its historical roots, dating back to the days of slavery with parents being separated from their children.

The influence of the film’s co-writer Mark Duplass can be seen in its structure, which offers a brief moment of playful banter between Alex and Chris as overworked parents clearly in love with each other yet too tired for sex after tucking in their kids to bed and has a dark irresistible hook of how average people would react to a horrific situation a la “Creep” or “Black Rock,” but it seems safe to assume that opened the door for Asomugha to run wild, with his vision for the whole situation undiminished since his days as a shutdown cornerback for the Oakland Raiders. After already proving himself as a confident leading man in “Sylvie’s Love” after his playing career, it isn’t surprising he takes to directing just as well when the tight 80-minute thriller packs such a punch, not losing any depth because of its velocity and gets the blood pumping and the mind racing in equal measure.

“The Knife” will screen at the Tribeca Festival on June 13th at 5:15 pm at the Village East.

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