Filmmaker Ian Palmer spent 12 years recording footage that would eventually comprise his film Knuckle. What began as a gun-for-hire wedding videographer gig spawned 200 hours of footage, Palmer immersing himself in an endless conflict between two feuding Irish families: the Quinn McDonaghs and the Joyces, who settle their differences with bare knuckle fist fights. Emerging as a central character in Palmer’s narrative is James, the Quinn McDonagh patriarch and an unbeatable fighter, who struggles with maintaining the respect of his family while making sense of all the bloodshed. Late in the film, James admits to the camera that he doesn’t really know why the two families fight. It’s that ambiguity that makes Knuckle a fascinating portrait, but a middling cinematic experience.
There are few films out there like Knuckle, in large part thanks to the dedication of its filmmaker. The movie looks like an assemblage of home movies—no well-lit talking heads, no fancy graphics, and the footage is barely (if even) high definition—but the down and dirty approach suits the raw power of the film’s central characters. Palmer sits like a fly on the wall while James and company train for fights, shoot taunt-filled video messages to rile up the Joyces, take care of their families and engage in animalistic spats of violence. He rarely pipes in to prod his subjects into explaining why they make the choices they do, leaving something to be desired from the film, but when the conflict manifests itself in the form of boxing, Palmer is up close and personal.
While Palmer only showcases a few choice fights during the movie, they’re the driving force behind every scene. The men of the families can’t shut up about beating the opposition into bloody pulps, and when the finally get into the ring (or the muddy field, or the gravel parking lot…), they let loose, flailing around with punches and, occasionally, fighting dirty (want to see someone bite into another guy’s nipple? See Knuckle). It’s hard to watch, but confronting these harrowing truths is Palmer’s agenda.
I saw this movie back in January when it premiered at Sundance and couldn’t help but compare it to last year’s big boxing movie The Fighter, and other sports-centric films. “The big fight” is a glorified moment, both in movies and reality (see the lines out any MMA or boxing match for proof). But here’s a group of people, regular joes, who strip away the flash of a good fight and expose the sport for what it really is: two grown men punching each other in the face. They do it out of respect, out of pride, but at the end of the day, it’s still two guys punching each other in the face. If Knuckle achieves anything, it’s flipping the exhilarating sports convention on its head, revealing that the desire to fight is natural. An instinct. But an unfortunate one.
Production-wise, Knuckle isn’t the most well-constructed movie in theaters this weekend, but it’s the most human—for better or worse. The Quinn McDonaghs and Joyces aren’t characters written into a conventional narrative, but their aimless battle ends up working as an unavoidable metaphor for conflicts big and small. The movie lands heavy, dramatic punches, and each one will make you flinch—out of pain, out of bewilderment, out of sadness.
Knuckle is out in limited release this weekend, but you can also watch it with the power of the Internet!