August 8, 2011


The documentary KNUCKLE provides a look into a culture and mindset that is entirely alien to me and my experiences. Director Ian Palmer follows two clans of “Travellers” – kind of like Irish gypsy folk, but sort of not – for 12 years as they settle their differences in organised bouts of bare-knuckle boxing.

The primary clans involved in the feud are the Quinn McDonaghs and the Joyces; other clans move in and out of the ongoing feud but the baddest blood is between these two. Though there are familial ties between the Quin-McDonaghs and the Joyces, they’re not the types to let that get in the way of good blood feud. The narrative is pieced together with interviews and footage of the boxing matches, all shot in a loose and handheld camcorder sort of way. Palmer stumbled into this world when shooting a wedding video for one of the McDonagh brothers, Michael. There he heard about the war between the two clans, and how they settle it. He was invited along to film one of the upcoming matches and so, in a quiet country lane, two bare-chested men slugged and slapped at each other until one had had enough. Each boxer brings along an impartial judge, and there are (some) rules - no biting, if a man is down step away etc - all to ensure fair play. Oh, and only the boxers from each clan are allowed for fears of a gang war breaking out. These families hate the fuck out of each other and, in addition to the boxing bouts, send each other video taunts ensuring the rivalry just keeps on going and going...

And that's the long and short of it really. For 10 solid years, these two families arrange bouts, bet, and keep on spiralling down. There is talk from some corners of putting their fists down, wondering what all this fighting is doing to their kids, but no action is seen to be readily taken. Each side becomes too invested in the conflict, the men using the bouts as a means to prove themselves. This is very much an internal world all of their own: their accent/dialect is so impenetrable as to require constant subtitles and they have no time for the coppers. And despite following these two families for over a decade, Palmer is still seen as an outsider.

There are a couple of personalities that inevitably float to the top but the focus is on unbeaten Quinn McDonagh champ, James. He's the tall, bald-headed man the Joyce's tend to try themselves against without success. He shows signs of mellowing in his old age, even retiring at one point, but he does come back (for a bout that lasts longer than TWO HOURS) and things begin again. By the time the credits roll, you're left wondering if this animosity will ever truly die or if it will always simmer away, forever in the background. KNUCKLE puts true, pointless brutality on display in grimy, shaky video.

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