It usually only take one backyard tumble or one bloody scrape in a fight to realize that the movies make it all look so beautiful. Real violence comes in an unsteady flurry of punches delivered by unchiseled bruisers looking to hurt, and bad. Ian Palmer's Knuckle has that notoriously winning combination of real violence and dangerous men that has made the internet a frequent madhouse whenever a particularly loathsome street fight shows up on the interwebs. Unfortunately, in covering the often verbal and occasionally physical infighting between two close-knit Irish Traveler families, Palmer, despite following the clans for over a decade, fails to conjure much in the way of substance. That leaves Knuckle in a rut of bad feelings and swollen fists, and not much else.
The genesis for this documentary saga becomes innocently enough, with Palmer acting as shooter-for-hire at the wedding of Michael Quinn McDonagh, younger brother to marginally legendary Traveler James. James is, for lack of a better word, fascinating, as much a cinematic figure as can be imagined, a man at odds with his own brute legacy and struggling to keep his fists at his sides and not get goaded into a grudge match that's clocking at almost two decades (the early 90s mark the time of a tragedy that permanently tore the families apart). James is patient and gentle when it comes to his family (the women stay offscreen for much of the film, as Palmer remains a questionable outsider to the Travelers). Yet, when the call is put out and the older brother steps onto a dirt road to face another man in a bout that can go on for over an hour with no breaks, the anger is unsettling.
Knuckle's first half hour is rightfully fascinating, as Palmer quickly checks of a cast of characters that, combined with a nomadic entourage and countless family members cameos, dwarfs other ensemble casts. Unfortunately, although Palmer attempts to keep track of his many pugilists and supporters, Knuckle quickly becomes confounding in both the chronological and basic sense of understanding the drama unfolding on screen. There's only so many heavily accented men (subtitles abound) spitting threats into the camera one can handle before it all becomes inseparable and minute. That said, the insights here are really something - the fact that the Quinn McDonaghs and rival family the Joyces are all related, with many of the marriages ignoring the battle lines; the fights shot by amateurs and watched by the community, then sold as product; the women earnestly hoping that the new generation will untangle and bury the hatreds of the old.
The filmmaker offers narration that often functions as personal commentary, attempting to reconcile personal guilt at filming these fights, or at least acknowledge a sense of shame. Whether this is necessary is up to the individual viewer to decide - this writer found it misplaced, especially when Palmer contributes his insights over grimy footage of men beating each other. Why not cut to black for a moment, leaving the video behind and giving the narration added weight?
Palmer's personal story saw a happy ending in the film being picked up by HBO as a jumping-off point for a fictional dramatic series. All the inspiration is found in this doc: the eternal feud (it is haunting but not impossible that such anger could have grown out of several bad decisions and a tragedy that will not be revealed here), the colorful characters, a lead in James and a rightful but sympathetic villain in Paddy Joyce, self-proclaimed King of the Travelers, a title that naturally entails the chubby man with burning coals for eyes and an unruly mop of hair to challenge men decades younger to a fight. All these elements work well for a few minutes at a time but are quickly derailed by a doc that moves forward because it must, with Palmer palming for something meaningful to explain the violence and coming up short.
Astute readers may have noticed that this review mentions little of the fights that have made the documentary semi-notorious - let's keep it that way. The fights are difficult to look away from and appropriately gruesome in both their inelegance and some of the injuries attained. Knuckle's selling point may be the dangerous thrill of bare-knuckle boxing but without the blood feud, it would only work half as well. The seams are very visible in Palmer's debut, but so is the beating heart, pumping fast and ready to take a punch or two.
Presented in Widescreen, Knuckle is upfront about the various camcorders that served Palmer during the twelve years he followed the feud and varying quality of earlier footage. That said, it's unsurprising that a movie of this nature is enlivened by muted, occasionally worn down footage (an amateur video of a key fight is a keeper). Modern-day footage is solid HD but nothing to write home about.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix does little to improve the general on-a-budget sound of the film. It's there, its audible and the punches land with a wet thud here and there, but that may be because the fighters are sweaty, dirty and fighting in the mud.
Knuckle is too scattershot to own, but a rental may be cause for thought-provoking discussion, or at least cheap thrills. Rent It.
The best of the five boroughs is now represented. Brooklyn in the house! I'm a hardworking film writer, blogger, boyfriend and hopeful Corgi owner. Find me on Twitter @markzhur and on Tumblr at Our Elaborate Plans...