Content warning: suicide
Words fail the bewildering chaos of Jon Delgado’s directorial debut “King of Knives,” a true “comedy” of errors. It’s not just a harmless bad, it’s the kind of offensive bad that both enrages and inspires fits of emotionally incontinent laughter.
The writing turns a simple premise into a bloated beast that defies summary. Frank (a hapless Gene Pope), is a boomer dad who hates his job at a New York City marketing agency where he’s constantly upended by his younger colleagues. He and his wife Kathy (Mel Harris) are celebrating a tumultuous 28 years of marriage with their two adult daughters Kaitlin (Roxi Pope) and Sadie (Emily Bennett) against the backdrop of the holiday season and an empty seat at the table left by their son Danny who committed suicide, due to Frank’s refusal to accept Danny’s sexuality. Regardless of whether or not it should, chaos ensues.
Welcome to a crash course in the hopeless structure of “King of Knives.” The three scene types can be summed up as: “Frank is old,” “Danny was gay and died” and “Relationships, am I right?” The first type of scene has Frank doing drugs or exercising. He’s old and that’s just supposed to be funny. The second type of scene starts with Frank doing Frank things — working, smoking, flirting with someone half his age, doing drugs — then something reminds him of Danny being dead and gay and, cued awkwardly by the score, Frank gets sad. As the film progresses, these scenes attempt to get more emotional by drip feeding more disturbing imagery in what amounts to this film’s idea of character development: more baggage with no destination. Scenes of the third type fill out the rest of the film with either pitiful laughs or exhausting melodrama.
“King of Knives” cycles through these scene types with reckless abandon, summing them to no substantive whole. Characters’ decisions have no bearing on their predetermined end points — only destruction and chaos for the road. The entire narrative depends on emotions that simply exist, things that already happened and conflicts the characters even fully agree about. Frank has been a terrible cheating husband whose ignorance may have caused his son to commit suicide — he knows all of that. Kathy agrees, Kaitlin agrees, Sadie agrees and nothing changes. Frank still cheats, still says “just not my only son” when expressing his support for the gay community and when he’s softball called out on it, the dagger bounces off him.
Perhaps the most offensive aspect of “King of Knives” is its depiction of suicide: “King of Knives” is like a doctor mistakenly administering bleach instead of medicine — it would be more comforting if they were actually trying to hurt you rather than asking you to accept that they’re really that inept.
The best way to understand the sheer horror of this film’s handling of suicide is by considering one particular scene — Frank, in a panic having been on an ecstasy-fueled night out the previous night, arrives at the scene of that party searching for a tarot card reader who gave him the titular “King of Knives” card. Instead, he stumbles across Cassie (Alyssa Kempinski) who makes it clear she’s “not a medical doctor” but is sure he’s having a panic attack so she offers some water.
Naturally, Frank forgets what he was doing and proceeds to flirt with this woman less than half his age. She pees with the door open in front of him, which even Frank’s aware is a “bold choice.” She rejects Frank’s advances — alas, he is too old for her — but reveals that she happens to be an aerialist and wants to show Frank a trick. She climbs her silks, spirals downward and lands with her feet silhouetted above Frank’s head. Frank’s horrified “No!” coupled with the glitchy red-tinted flashback to Danny’s hanging body solidify that the film handles suicide with all the directorial delicacy of a bass-boosted dank meme. Indescribable, dumbfounding and unforgivable.
Any joy derived from this film’s sheer badness is rendered totally negligible by the depths of its horrors. “King of Knives” illustrates why we don’t play with them.