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.”