Aside from maybe Errol Morris' "Tabloid," there is no story you'll see in a docmentary this year as astonishingly odd and visceral as that in Ian Palmer's "Knuckle." But unlike Morris' film, which centers on a single incident in the already quirky life of one woman, Palmer's film tracks the simmering real life feuds between multiple families that has deloved in an endless series of bare knuckle fights between warring members. In "Knuckle," Palmer weaves an incredible tale, captured from more than a decade's worth of footage he shot as an invited witness to the matches, centered around the Quinn-McDonaugh family of Irish travellers and their battles with the Joyce and Nevins clans. The film is raw, brutal stuff with men of all ages — from lads barely out of their teenage years to grandfathers — meeting every few months to settle a variety of scores in bloody bare knuckle fights on the backroads of Ireland.
Yes, it's as bracing and harsh as it sounds, and Palmer quickly wakes up the viewer with an opening bout that he lets play on with minimal cuts, allowing the full impact to be felt. The director fell into this by accident, bumping into our main subject James McDonagh at a wedding he was shooting and then being invited to film a fight. And it was an eye-opener. "I had no idea," Palmer said in a recent interview, when we asked if he had any inkling of what he was getting into. "I didn't know anything about bare knuckle boxing — apart from the historical side of it going back a hundred years. I didn't know there was a tradition among Irish travellers, among different families to fight each other for family honor. I didn't know what form or shape or anything about it."
And that innocence to the subject matter coupled with his own resolve to capture it as authentically as possible, led to a gritty approach that at times literally put him in harm's way. "I'm not a blood thirsty guy, I'm not involved in blood sports, this is completely new to me. [It was my] first experience, I'm there with a little camera — this going back to 1997, so it's really the beginnings of the pro-sumer digital cameras — a little VX1000 camera, right up in close…I felt if I was going to be there, there was no point in being coy about it," Palmer said. "I may as well capture it, blood, guts and everything. And in fact, because that was my choice and method of filming the fights, I did on occasion catch a punch that was misthrown and got hit a few times and the lens got sprayed with blood."
You'll see that first fight in the film and it's riveting, violent, stuff. But the full weight of the day and what Palmer had gotten involved with wasn't felt until much later, after he stepped away from filming and had a moment to reflect. "I found because I'm filming these things, at the time I'm so concentrated on trying to get it, I wasn't emotionally affected by the occasional real brutality and violence in front me," he said. "The first time the impact hit me [was after] the first fight, when we went back to the pub with James…And James was taken in on the shoulders of the crowd, the girls in the background were singing Bob Dylan's 'The Mighty Quinn' [and] James was standing underneath this bare bulb above his head surrounded by his family…and for whatever weird reason it looked like a halo effect over his head. And that's really the way it felt — it felt like they were bringing a hero back….It really blew me away, it was a huge situation I had walked into. They opened the door and said 'Come on through,' and I stepped through and it changed my life, really."
"Knuckle" premiered at Sundance in January and it quickly became one of the most talked about docs in Park City, with a number of people looking snatch up feature film/remake rights, including a pretty big movie star as Palmer reveals. "When I was in Sundance, there was a lot of people approaching me and my producing partner for the possibility of doing a fiction remake. And there was only one [TV] series involved in that, and that's what we're currently developing. All the others were movies. Some people wanted to develop it, like Vin Diesel for example was one of the number of very well known actors, looking for a kind of action hero part," the director said.
The idea of turning "Knuckle" into some kind of action heavy film is fairly amusing considering it's the intricate and decades-long history between the families — who share bloodlines if you trace it back far enough — that proves to be the most fascinating part of the documentary. And while Palmer cautions that it's all "early days" on the project — that's set up at HBO and over the summer was said to have Irvine Welsh on board to write, and David Gordon Green, Danny McBride and Jody Hill's Rough House Pictures producing (with Hill to direct the pilot) — he already knows what he'd like to explore in the format of a television series.
"What attracted me about the idea of doing a series with the likes of HBO…is that in my film, even though I'm telling a twelve-year story, I'm focusing on two brothers, there are so many other stories and backstories and the generation before of what happened there and the old people and the women, who I didn't really have time and opportunity to get into in the documentary," Palmer said. "There are so many strands which…can go in lots and lots of different directions. That really is the attraction of making it a series."
But before we get there, "Knuckle" still has to hit theaters and it arrives on Friday, December 9th. Do yourself a favor, and track it down.