Knuckle is a documentary about bare-knuckle gypsy fights. For many of you, the people like myself, everything I write after this sentence will be unnecessary and at best, skimmed. I understand. The short version is, I think I lost a tooth and grew a third ball. Now for the actual review. Come for the gratuitous Snatch references, stay for the reasoned analysis.
Who knew Snatch was so historically accurate? In fact, if anything, it undersold how much da Poikeys loike boxing each ovvas in makeshift rings wid a loose grasp of rules. In Knuckle, documentary filmmaker Ian Palmer spent 12 years following members of The Travellers, a nomadic ethnic group in England and Ireland organized into prideful clans (all distant cousins, of course) who frequently challenge each other to clan-vs.-clan backyard brawls through taunting videos in impenetrable gaelic patois (helpfully subtitled), and bet big money on the outcomes. Farbeit from me to dislike a film about fat gypsies knocking each others’ teeth out in parking lots, but it could’ve been better.
Palmer’s central character is James (right), a dead ringer for Snatch‘s Gorgeous George and pride of a Traveller clan called the Quinn McDonaghs. A thoughtful ex-Dublin city boxing champ, James is often called upon to fight the best of his distant cousins, the Joyces, with whom the Quinn McDonaghs have been feuding for the past 20 or 50 years, depending on who you ask. Seeing James beat the tar out of a lumpy, ginger Joyce everyone calls “Lurch” in a match held in the middle of a dirty country road, combined with the audible gasps of the middle-aged ladies in the audience around me as they watched Lurch dig an entire finger inside his bloody mess of an eye socket within the first 15 minutes of the movie was probably the highlight. If someone takes a film called “things that make old ladies puke” to Sundance, I’ll buy the first ticket.
The clans send each other taunting video tapes like pro-wrestlers, promising that a Jaice will never beat a Quinn McDonagh in a fair foight, on account of they’re all tick loomps a shite dat’ll never amount to bollocks. Most entertaining of the bunch is Big Joe Joyce (pictured above), a mulleted, flat-nosed psychopath of about 50 or 60 years old who claims to soak his knuckles in gasoline for 20 minutes a day to harden them up. We see Big Joe fight only once, against another grossly overweight grandfather in the middle of a forest, a fight which Big Joe goes on to lose via disqualification for biting. It isn’t the only fight that ends this way. Afterwards, they smoke cigarettes and argue about which clan challenged whom, like always. It might be dangerous, but being a gypsy looks entertaining as sh_t.
Grateful as you have to be to Palmer for giving us a glimpse into this world that revolves around the results of the latest bare-chested, hairy-backed, sloppy brawl, the focus is off. The synopsis is a clue: “An outsider in a secretive world, Palmer waited years before he began to learn the reasons for the animosity between the rival clans. Disturbingly raw, yet compulsively engaging, KNUCKLE offers candid access to a rarely seen, brutal world where a cycle of bloody violence seems destined to continue unabated.”
Palmer seems preoccupied with this “cycle of violence”, why the clans fight each other, and trying to find roots for their grudges, which almost always seem to stem from someone being too drunk at a wedding and taking an “unfair” beating from rival clan members. My Italian uncles were always feuding too, but the reasons were always byzantine and ultimately pointless. Family feuds are like that. It’s also a bit ponderous, since the answer to why they fight seems fairly obvious. The fights might have started as legitimate grudge matches, but have clearly become more about the allure of the fights themselves. The exhilaration of victory, the glory and fame that go to the winner, simple boredom — all are applicable reasons for why it feels cathartic for guys to kick the sh_t out of each other, and are well covered in Fight Club. By the end, Palmer even admits to feeling guilty when he realizes he’s making his film as much for the thrill he gets watching the fights as for honest exploration of the phenomenon.
He shouldn’t feel so conflicted. The question of why one clan/team/participant feels compelled to prove himself “better” than another drives every sport, doesn’t it? Might as well search for the root of the cycle of violence in the NFL. The participants enjoy doing it and the spectators enjoy watching it. The question isn’t why they fight, but why they can’t just hug each other afterward, instead of trying to maintain the grudge match charade. It’s a strange phenomenon, but watching the Travellers talk themselves in circles doesn’t make it any clearer. One thing I wish they’d knocked out was a little editing.
Meanwhile, I’m left with a million other questions about The Travellers. For instance, where they hell are they getting the 20 to 60 thousand pounds they’re betting on these fights? The only job they show James doing is removing a wooden post, which he spends about 30 seconds on before backing into it with his car and going off to smoke cigarettes with the other guys. How often do they change camps, and why? Does being nomadic just mean moving to a new trailer park every couple of years? And most importantly, D’YA LOIKE DAGS?
Bottom line: worth watching, but should’ve been better.