Review: ‘Knuckle’

‘A dark, brutal, black hole world of casual physical violence.’

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

The rules are pretty simple. Bare-knuckle fight. No head-butting, no biting, no kicking, no clawing, no hitting a man when he's fallen over. Gambling is openly encouraged. There is no time limit, and there are no marked rounds. Blood may flow openly, and medical attention will be needed at the end of the fight. The fight will continue until someone is either unconscious, or they simply admit they've had enough. Rival families of Irish “travelers” (i.e. modern-day nomadic families) have been using bare-knuckle fistfights to clear the air. This is a tradition that stretches back as far as anyone can remember.

Fights will begin when one family will accuse the other of some vague wrongdoing that offends their honor. They do so with a homemade videotape that resembles, in many ways, the belittling and taunting barking matches you see in televised pro-wrestling events. The fighters will boastfully claim their prowess. The fight will be planned for a certain date and location, and bets will be placed. As much as $30,000 can be bet on a single fight. The families will not attend the fights in person, as to avoid the temptation to riot openly. The fights will be overseen by impartial referees.

A series of decade-long family rivalries, and the fights used to settle them, is the topic of Ian Palmer's new documentary film Knuckle, a brutal film that deeply explores the detailed codes of honor between the Quinn-McDonaugh family and some of their rivals over the course of 12 years. Palmer does seem to respect the code of honor the Quinn-McDonaughs follow, but spends most of the film baffled about the overblown playground dynamics revolving tightly around some long-forgotten slight that seems to focus vaguely on a 1992 incident in which one family member may have murdered another. Palmer is always an outsider, and while James, the would-be patriarch of the Quinn-McDonaghs, eventually does confide in him, Palmer never becomes intensely involved. He stands back and observes.

What he observes seems to be a never-ending cycle of resentment, regret, money, and flying fists. These “travelers” move from city to city on a regular basis, picking up odd jobs here and here, and occasionally sending threatening videos to rivals. They are not wealthy, and they seem to have little interests in anything other than fighting. The men all swagger and pound their barrel chests, screaming through their broken teeth that they can best their opponents, while the women in the families sit quietly in the background, shrinking from the cameras.

These men are not athletes. They don't have the expensive haircuts and cut physiques of your average professional boxer. These are thick-necked thugs with thick skin and matchless stamina. They bleed, spit, and pound away using only a few straps of bandages to protect their knuckles. The patriarch of the Joyce family, a doughy, pig-eyed man in his sixties, rants about how he's still in his prime, and makes up for his lack of finesse with his sheer moxie. These are fat, bald guys who drink a lot and wail on each other. These are men who make professionals like Manny Pacquiao look like poseurs. This is not fighting for sport. This is fighting for rage. These guys could take any namby-pamby professional and still have enough energy for a pint afterwords.

James especially talks a bit about how the cycle is horrible, and how it needs to end. The bad blood is not bad anymore. Each fight doesn't really clear the air, but leads to more resentment. Each fight, after all, must inevitably have a loser. Eventually, over the course of the 12 years, we see James' son grow up and start to take part in the fighting himself. It's unlikely the cycle will end anytime soon. The fighters are no longer hurt by anything personal, but seem more like fight hobbyists. The only real difference between the old generation and the new one, is that the old traded VHS tapes have now been upgraded to DVDs.

Ian Palmer tries to remain objective, but can't help inserting long, moody pieces of calming music into the film, emphasizing the tragedy of this brutal social cul-de-sac. His laconic narration seems to have too much of a tut-tutting, disapproving quality. And while the tragedy is palpable, and the Sisyphean aspects of these ongoing fights are enough to make even the participants wince, such a narration was unneeded. The only time it really worked is when Palmer, watching Big Joe Joyce fight a fellow rival, also in his 60s, admitted that he had finally hit a wall in uncovering anything more about this world. It was just a dark, brutal, black hole world of casual physical violence.

The film is in English, but, to aid us Yanks in understanding the thick Irish brogue, there are subtitles.