Palmer was a family friend of the clan McDonagh, who soon became their fight documentarian after meeting two brothers, Michael and James, who regularly engaged in back road, unsanctioned fights with members of the Joyce clan. The McDonaghs and Joyces have a feud that’s gone on for decades, and while no one can clearly remember what first set it into motion, every few years some new infraction breaks the tenuous peace and leads them to square off physically for pride, and of course bragging rights. While James remains undefeated, his younger brother Michael shames himself while fighting in a desperate attempt to win, and gets disqualified. But as he trains to regain his dignity and the honor of victory he forfeited years before, members of both families question how long the rivalry will go on, even as they seem unwilling to offer any sort of permanent resolution to it.
In the U.S., the idea of a family rivalry that isn’t as comical as “Johnson Family Vacation” seems almost categorically ridiculous. But it’s that distance that should give stateside audiences a more rapid emotional engagement with its thematic underpinnings, in particular the bittersweet acknowledgment that these people, despite their acrimony, are actually family, and are just seeding generations of relatives with an irrational but deep-rooted vilification of one another. And while the wives and girlfriends seem more eager to suggest this all should stop, it’s primarily James among the male McDonaghs who has the maturity and presence of mind to realize that this is more than a little bit pointless. Moreover, given his genuine promise as a professional fighter, there’s something especially sad about the ongoing responsibility he shoulders to protect the family honor, when he could by channeling that energy into a more constructive and lucrative future for his family.
Overall, the film is rough-hewn and unflattering in its portrait of these fights and the circumstances that lead to them, but it’s also remarkably compassionate to both clans, and even-handed in its depiction of their behavior. But that’s only the kind of perspective that a filmmaker could have cultivated over many years and via many intimate experiences with his subjects, which is what makes this documentary more than the sum of its parts. Ultimately, “Knuckle” is both a chronicle of unsanctioned fights and a portrait of the families who find self-worth in winning them. Let’s hope it doesn’t take Palmer another decade or more to find another subject he’s as connected to and passionate about, but until then he’s crafted a film that, for lack of a better way to describe it, is a real knockout. [A-]