Given the recent explosion of mixed martial arts in the last several years, it seems like a no-brainer that someone would make a documentary about real-life pugilists who don’t just fight but have a real, deep-rooted beef with one another. But Ian Palmer’s documentary “Knuckle” isn’t a celebration of competition, or even the chronicle of a journey some ambitious hopeful makes en route to victory, or even defeat; rather, it takes a long and in many ways tragic look at two warring Irish clans who have engaged in a rivalry for so long that they keep it going without ever knowing why, and certainly without considering stopping it. A chronicle of two intertwined family histories whose ongoing conflict is as raw and unrefined as the fists of the men who fight, “Knuckle” is an understated but powerful look at a world people know little about, in a way they’ve never seen before.
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.
Shot on low-fidelity camcorders and digital cameras over a period of more than 20 years (including footage provided by the McDonaghs before Palmer took up the challenge of chronicling their feud), the film immediately carries with it the raw immediacy of one of those mail-order videos that promise “real” backyard fights. But Palmer isn’t content to merely document the fights in all of their bloody, undignified glory, and he narrates the film with a certain sense of incredulity at the longevity of the Joyce-McDonagh rivalry even as he recognizes his own emotional investment in their lives. Although it’s really only the tipping point when he realizes that he’s become too immersed in their world, he provides a commentary that’s intimate and sensitive, offering both first-person accounts of the frequently absurd circumstances leading to fights, and an arm’s length, agape critique of them the audience can immediately identify with.
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.
As the story winds on, Palmer almost inadvertently also creates a third throughline, examining the poverty-level conditions of all of the family members, who repeatedly relocate or abandon their homes when they can no longer afford them. But notwithstanding the experience of watching a lifestyle that itself feels so tenuous and beleaguered, this story strand also holds much of the key to the longevity of the rivalry: these are people without much of substance in their lives, and they maintain this beef because it gives them something to do – and when their family wins, it's something rare that they can be proud of.
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-]