Fantastic Fest 2011: KNUCKLE Review

     September 27, 2011


Sometimes feuds last for generations. Without any present rhyme or reason, the Irish Travellers at the heart of Knuckle may never find absolute peace from each other. Producer and director Ian Palmer puts us in the middle of the family feuds that end up utilizing bare-knuckle fights to solve their differences. Palmer’s lens focuses on James Quinn McDonagh, an undefeated champion of his family, who slowly begins to lament his position as the face, fist, and mouth of his namesake. Over 12 years, we are given a glimpse into the secretive nomadic families that is both tragic and thrilling in its brutality and upsetting because of the never-ending cycle of violence. More shocking is that bloodlines are so mixed and interwoven that it isn’t uncommon for brothers, uncles, and nephews to fight. Palmer gives us a brief look and with James as the focus, Knuckle will draw you in and leave a lasting impression. Hit the jump for my full review.

knuckle-imageJames Quinn McDonagh, the head fighter for the Quinn McDonaghs, is part of a nomadic family of Irishmen that feud with other families through taunts and claims of superiority. Those gests turn into challenges, where two fighters from the feuding families duel in bare-knuckle fights. “Fair play” is emphasized, and none of the competing families are allowed to attend these neutral location fisticuffs refereed by outside families. Three outcomes are possible: knocked out, admission of defeat, or a declaration of a draw. As James fights for his family along with his brother Michael, we are shown the way things have slowly evolved into a prize-fight more focused on money than pride or spite. Blood is spilled, but it is the struggle to achieve peace that James continually struggles with after realizing there is no end in sight.

The fights often take center stage, as they are part of what makes this machismo attitude so frustrating. As I mentioned, the fights are surprisingly regulated, with no holding, biting, or hits in the belly or below. It is face versus fist, and while there is potential for tremendous carnage, most of it ends up being blackened or busted eyes and mouths. The other revelation is how long the fights last. At one point, a fight drags on for well over an hour. Because of the secretive nature of the families and the fact that these are illegal activities, not every bout is filmed with Ian behind the camera. Yet, every fight mentioned within the timeframe is given some sort of footage to chew over.

knuckle-posterSlowly, over the course of a decade, the families become increasingly sophisticated in their taunts. Initially, VHS tapes with verbal slights aimed at a potential opponent was the lone source or attack, but the Travellers have become gradually more aware of the blossoming technology in the world. Today it isn’t uncommon to see them on DVDs or YouTube, as the purses and prize money have risen. James explains that he thinks he was at the center of the prize money idea, as he utilized it to deter people from challenging him because they would have to come up with the money. Now, though, things twisted and evolved to where the money is incentive to fight, something he admits to as well.

The women of the families aren’t left without a voice, though most of the males simply ignore their complaints. There is an sad occurrence where fighting is so linked with the gypsies that they will lament to the camera and then turn around and say how proud they are of their husband or brother-in-law. The tragedy of the storyline in Knuckle can be freely applied to other cultures that have long-running feuds, and this can be seen as a parable for the situations in the Middle East where wars having been raging so long that they simply fight because they are supposed to. James provides the audience with a character that can speak loudly with his fist and his mouth, and it gives us hope that he wants to change the ways the Travellers go about it.

Score: B+

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