Irish troubles of a different but similarly deep-rooted sort are on fascinating display in “Knuckle,” director Ian Palmer’s decade-spanning chronicle of the bloody fisticuffs between two feuding Traveler families. As a bruising study in masculine temperament and the ways in which cycles of violence can be controlled and mediated — yet also perpetuated and inflamed — in a public arena, pic is unavoidably compelling stuff, even if it finally feels as grindingly repetitive, and hopeless, as the chain of aggression it documents. Abundant fight footage lends “Knuckle” a decent theatrical shot, though HBO’s dramatic remake looks to draw more spectators.
While the Quinn McDonagh and Joyce families are cousins, their bad blood goes back generations, and Palmer, who began recording their fights in 1997 and kept filming for the next 12 years, attempts to trace the conflict back to its half-forgotten roots. The sins of the past seem less important than the poundings of the present, as the warring clans meet on rugged country lanes for bare-knuckle boxing matches — a carefully ritualized means of settling accounts, except that accounts never get settled.
The seasoned champion of the bunch, and the film’s closest thing to a hero, is James Quinn McDonagh, who, after years of going undefeated, admits he’s grown tired of all the fighting. With James more or less announcing his retirement, the drama mainly concerns his more hotheaded younger brother, Michael, who’s determined to reclaim his honor in a rematch with “Big” Paul Joyce after an ill-fated bout nine years before.
Michael was disqualified in that 1999 go-round for biting, one of three forbidden offenses (the others being head-butting and below-the-belt punches). Again and again, the subjects interviewed, including members of the Joyce family, emphasize the importance of a fair fight, and one of the film’s sharpest insights is that for the most part, these men instinctively govern themselves even when indulging their baser impulses. Of course, these urges are sometimes expressed in a more juvenile fashion: Palmer is granted access to the numerous trash-talking videos (many featuring the outspoken “Big” Joe Joyce) the families send back and forth to rile each other up and instigate fresh confrontations.
Fittingly rough in its assembly (Michael Doyle lensed the pic with Palmer, while Ollie Huddleston handled editing duties), and thoroughly Irish in its blend of fatalism and grisly humor, “Knuckle” performs a fairly shrewd dissection of the Traveler male ego while maintaining an essentially observational perspective. For the viewer, the matches themselves, with their clumsily thrown punches and spasmodic nosebleeds, will serve as a bristling antidote to the slickly choreographed fight scenes typical of most action fare; here, in the absence of squishy, Dolby-amplified sound effects, it’s the audience whose gasps and groans supply the accompaniment.
As anthropology lessons go, “Knuckle” is strong stuff, and it’s easy to accept Palmer’s conclusion that the problem he’s showing us may well have no solution. For that very reason, despite the docu’s attempt to supply Michael Quinn McDonagh with some third-act uplift and a rooting interest, a certain battle fatigue sets in well before the finish. Watching the film, it’s possible to experience all sorts of reactions — excitement, revulsion, a certain grudging respect — yet what it leaves us with is a profound sadness. Call it outsider condescension, but there’s something deeply dispiriting about spending time with people whose options in life seem so limited by a cloddish tribal order that forces them — and inevitably, their children — to perpetuate a neverending cycle of unexamined hatred and bodily harm. There’s no escape, and perhaps no desire to. They fight, therefore they are.