Go inside the most hilariously pointless family feud ever.
Dir. Ian Palmer, 2011, 96 min
Knuckle is weird for me, because it’s a mostly well-done movie that executes itself perfectly, about a very serious and somber subject, and I could only laugh the whole way through. The story of the warring Quinn McDonagh and Joyce clans is a sad example of how conflict consumes and propagates itself indefinitely. And yet I could only laugh. Because the Quinn McDonaghs and Joyces fulfill pretty much every Irish stereotype that you can think of.
The movie starts with gambling behind a church during a wedding (where the bride and groom are teenage cousins). This narration is said with an utterly straight face: “I filmed seven fights that day between the families. All the fighters were related to each other.” Around every bend of this film is some moment or line of dialogue that made me giggle uncontrollably. I know that this is an utter failure of empathy and compassion, but I couldn’t help myself.
The Quinn McDonagh and Joyce families are Irish travellers, part of a nomadic ethnic group that frequents Ireland and England. These two particular clans have been feuding for decades. They can’t properly remember why; there’s an explanation most of them believe which is actually total bull, and a real reason that’s pretty dumb. The “why” doesn’t really seem to matter at this point, though. They “fight over names” as one head-shaking grandmother puts it.
What’s interesting is the rather elaborate system they’ve set up to settle their disagreements. Rather than brawling in the streets or doing drive-by shootings, they organize bare-knuckle boxing matches between two representatives of the families. The matches take place at neutral locations, with objective referees, and no other family members present. This keeps the bloodshed to a minimum. At the same time, the clans send video tapes taunting one another to each other in anticipation of the fights, sell video tapes of the matches for pretty good money, and lay down some pretty huge sums as rewards for the bouts. This is serious business.
Director Ian Palmer followed this feud for twelve years. He sort of fell into it accidentally and was caught up in the ride. In this movie, the audience is something like an unwitting bystander standing by in horrified awe at the ridiculousness on display. We’re kind of like James McAvoy in The Last King of Scotland, except even more ineffectual. The doc has a low-dirty videotape look that is totally appropriate to the events to which it bears witness. Palmer even comments at one point that his footage “looks like a video nasty” (bootleg exploitation films that circulated Britain in the 1980’s).
Palmer, in fact, is continually wondering why he’s still following these people around. Just as they’re caught up in their violence, he too is enraptured by it, and can’t tear himself away. The Quinn McDonaghs and Joyces have made bloody beatings into a proud tradition, and it’s pretty sad. It’s crystallized in a moment where two aged gentlemen smack each other around to the enthusiastic encouragement of a crowd. That’s when Palmer decided he’d had enough, but even then he, like Michael Corleone, just kept getting pulled back in. Maybe these two clans and their endless knuckle fighting can stand in for all of humanity as a whole. Maybe their’s is our race’s struggle with our baser natures. Maybe I’m really pretentious.
The movie started to lose me after around an hour or so, when the sheer moebius-strip-like unceasingness of the fighting became abundantly clear. After a certain point, the doc just seems to keep hammering home the same point. Of course, that might also be part of the point, since it helps really wear us down and see how tiring and pointless the whole affair is. It doesn’t surprise me that, with twelve years of footage and no clear resolution in sight, Palmer might have had difficulty figuring out a concrete through-line. In any case, Knuckle may drag (heh) at places, but it’s great in a can’t-look-away way. And, intentional or not, it’s also hilarious.