In the late 1990s, Ian Palmer, a struggling screenwriter, did a turn as a videographer at an Irish wedding and was impressed by the reverence commanded by the groom's older brother. James Quinn McDonagh was not professionally accomplished or exceptionally virtuous; he was venerated for his excellence in bare-knuckled boxing matches against members of rival clans among Irish Travellers, modern-day gypsies in the British Isles. Palmer foresaw cinematic gold and spent the next decade-plus chronicling generations-old feuds among Travellers that are settled—or perpetuated—by fights held in desolate woods, parking lots and on country roads. The result is Knuckle, a bone-jarring documentary (in theaters this week) that lacks in neither blood nor heart.
In lesser hands Palmer's undertaking would simply have yielded a compendium of YouTube-ready brutality—two pasty men, wearing nothing but shoes and sweatpants, extracting plasma from each other. Kimbo O'Slice, as it were. Palmer, though, limns the peculiar Traveller culture and explores themes of tribalism, pointless pride, aggression, respect and revenge. It's classical, Biblical, old-school stuff. The fights, however, are fueled by technology. One clan provokes with a video that makes anything out of Floyd Mayweather's mouth seem decorous. ("You cowardly pack of bollocks, kiss my Joyce hole....") The other clan grows incensed. And, inevitably, it's on.
Palmer offers as little defense for street fighting as there exists defense in the bouts he films. But there is a certain honor among Travellers, many of whom are interrelated. For one, they fight with their fists, never, pointedly, with firearms or knives. When one Traveller bites another, Tyson-style, he is disgraced for years. The shame of it all? You're left concluding that if someone could dam the rivers of testosterone, the clans would share pints at the pub and get along just fine.
Naturally the few women in the documentary provide the voices of reason. "People getting hurt for nothing," says one mother, "and I don't think it's fair to the families. They should stop and forget the whole lot of it."
A fair point. But then again, such harmony would have precluded this knockout of a doc from getting made in the first place.