“Knuckle,” documentarian Ian Palmer’s portrait of Irish families constantly engaging in bare-knuckle fights, generated immediate industry buzz when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. HBO wanted to adapt its fierce, absurdly proud subjects for a series and Hollywood stars asked about playing them.
However, none of this attention necessarily validated “Knuckle” as a movie; it demonstrated that Palmer had chosen ideal characters for pop-culture appropriation. Watching “Knuckle,” it’s impossible not to realize how their brutality could go mainstream.
Palmer spent 10 years following a pair of warring Irish traveler families, the Quinn-McDonaughs and their distant cousins, the Joyces. Both sides are locked into a feud dating back to 1992, when a drunken brawl in London resulted in the death of a Joyce and the incarceration of a Quinn. However, that incidentonly served to resurrect lingering animosities from half a century earlier. The need to fight simmers in their blood and it’s a disease that consumes them. Over the years, the families gleefully pass recorded challenges to each other, first on VHS and then on DVD, scowling at the camera and turning up their machismo. This isn’t histrionic WWE-style posturing; these men live for this stuff.
And so fight they do, in dirty backlots and abandoned roads, causing plenty of bloodshed but no resolution. Palmer shifts between a series of showdowns and interviews with the principal members of both families. He places most of his focus on the unbeatable James Quinn-McDonaugh, a hero to one side and arch-villain to the other. His measured way of discussing the purpose of the fights while acknowledging their underlying ridiculousness (as his wife and children lurk in the background) makes him a better guide than Palmer, whose constant narration adds nothing except the voice of an outsider asking obvious questions. The battle footage grows exhausting, at odds with Palmer’s pensive voiceover. His curiosity about the fights has an anthropological dimension, but their belligerence is an inexact science.
With the exception of a few candid moments featuring James at home, “Knuckle” isn’t particularly well-made, but there’s an inherently fascinating quality to the material. The tapes exist out of necessity, adhering to ancient rules of warfare even if the participants don’t fully realize it. Tradition drives their blind anger. Many scenes show the presence of children at the fights, egging on their elders with adulatory looks.
Unsurprisingly, the interest in adapting “Knuckle” directly relates to the convictions of its characters. The producers of “Eastbound and Down” — including the show’s star, Danny McBride — clearly saw in “Knuckle” the same comic potential of overweening masculinity contained in his current program. Inquiries about a feature-length remake came from the likes of big-screen tough guys Gerard Butler and Vin Diesel, who probably couldn’t see past the muscles and the fury.
In other words, the documentary sparked excitement over exactly the kind of behavior that Palmer claims, in his voiceover, to find reprehensible. After one particularly grueling fight, he says he “kept the tape and didn’t show it to anyone,” a blatantly false statement since he makes it while showing it to us.
The selling point of “Knuckle” is the fights, period. There have been more calculated studies of male brawniness in the nonfiction arena, attempts to study the physicality without outright celebrating it. Frederick Wiseman’s “Boxing Gym” reduces the grunts and sights to a kind of abstract, experimental artwork, while Robert Greene’s amusing “Fake It So Real” explores independent pro wrestlers in the deep south who use their goofy rage to battle feelings of social alienation.
“Knuckle,” however, owes more to the legacy of silent fight films that made the rounds over 100 years ago — plotless documentation of gruff matches in which nothing mattered more than the punches thrown. The primal appeal of those fights turns “Knuckle” into a deeply unsettling experience.
However, James Quinn’s willingness to occasionally open up saves “Knuckle” from devolving into purely a violent showcase. Gearing up for another battle, he sighs, “I’d rather be socializing.” Expanding his star power through the movie’s exposure and interest from Hollywood, Quinn may get his wish; it would make “Knuckle” nothing less than his salvation.
criticWIRE grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Arc Entertainment opens “Knuckle” in limited release today in New York, Austin and Los Angeles. Its niche appeal (and some clever promotional stunts the company has hosted leading up to the release) should help give it strong visibility, although it will probably find a bigger home in ancillary markets — especially once these proposed adaptations come out.