out of Five
Running time: 97
Engaging documentary that showcases some intriguing characters and initially provides some illicit thrills, but the film's lack of structure and background is frustrating and the fight scenes become increasingly difficult to watch.
What's it all about?
When director Ian Palmer was asked to video a wedding within the Irish Traveller community, he befriended various members of the McDonagh family and discovered the practice of bareknuckle fighting amongst feuding families, primarily the McDonaghs and the Joyces. Every so often, one of the family members sends one of the other family members a video, taunting them and basically calling them out for a fight; the two family members then fight each other, bareknuckle style, until someone either gives up or is knocked unconscious, with members from a third family refereeing the fight.
Over the course of 12 years, Palmer repeatedly returns to document both the fights and the family members themselves, spending most of his time with undefeated champion fighter James Quinn McDonagh and his hot-headed younger brother, Michael, who once disgraced himself by biting a Joyce, mid-fight (captured on camera by Palmer). If there's a structure to the film at all, it's only that the film is bookended by that initial fight between Michael McDonagh and huge, lumbering Paddy Joyce (nicknamed ‘The Lurcher’) and their rematch 12 years later.
The film is equal parts fascinating, thrilling and deeply depressing:
it's intriguing to get an inside look at the Irish Traveller community, and there are undeniable illicit thrills to be had from the fights themselves, at least initially. However, as the years wear on and the feud is clearly no closer to being over, it becomes increasingly disheartening; there's a particularly heartbreaking shot of a young boy listening to his family members talk and you can almost see him realising that he'll have to fight one of his cousins (the Joyces and the McDonaghs are all related some way or another) or a rival family member himself one day.
The characters are equally intriguing: Quinn is an extremely charismatic figure, while there's a palpable sense of a redemption story for Michael. The film also showcases Big Joe Joyce, the frankly terrifying 60-something patriarch of the Joyces, who proves in a brutal grandfather vs grandfather smackdown that he's still got it.
The main problem is that the lack of structure and background becomes increasingly frustrating – the source of the feud is hinted at but never really explored, for example, while no attempt ever seems to be made to get the whole thing to stop.
Knuckle is an engaging documentary that's by turns fascinating, thrilling but ultimately, rather depressing. Not an easy watch, but worth seeing.