Knuckle - SideReel Review
Filmmaker Ian Palmer offers a fascinating glimpse at a stubbornly proud Irish sub-culture while simultaneously detailing the ways that a single act of violence can erupt into all out war in Knuckle, a compelling and occasionally disturbing documentary shot over the course of 12 years and covering too many conflicts to count.
It all began in 1997, when Palmer was hired to shoot the wedding of 18-year-old Michael Quinn McDonagh. There, Palmer met Michael's brother James, who had been involved in three blood-feud fights against their cousins the Joyces, and who was now in training for his fourth. By some accounts, the bad blood between the Quinn McDonaghs and the Joyces stretched back at least 50 years. The main reason the family was embroiled in rivalry in the late 1990s, however, stemmed from an incident in 1992, when James' brother Paddy was charged with manslaughter following the death of Brian Joyce outside a pub in England. When word of the incident reached members of the Joyces and Quinn McDonaghs in England and Ireland, it was all-out war. Then, in 1996, Tim Joyce was killed in yet another fight against the Quinn McDonaghs. Meanwhile, after James defeated Paddy Joyce in his fourth fight, both families began making videotapes taunting their rivals. With each new videotape came a new grudge, and another reason to fight. Now, 12 years after that fateful tragedy in England, the Quinn McDonaghs and the Joyces will clash in a brawl that some hope will end the longstanding conflict. The more time we spend embroiled in the ongoing strife however, the clearer it becomes that any resolution seems highly unlikely.
For anyone who has ever been fascinated about the reasons we fight, Knuckle offers an engaging, occasionally bloody microcosm of a self-perpetuating cycle of violence. At one point early on in the film, Palmer asks the Quinn McDonaghs why they continue fighting the Joyces. The answer he gets, "It's tradition," is downright chilling, and it's punctuated later by a haunting shot of "The King of the Travelers," Big Joe Joyce's younger relative standing in his shadow. The more fights we see, the more apparent it becomes that it's no longer about who's right and who's wrong, but who will be the dominant clan in the future. Thus the stage is set for a struggle that has no possible resolution for either clan; with each new victory comes a renewed drive for redemption on the other side. The testosterone-fueled taunts that the families continually exchange on videotape rend open old wounds like a pugilist focusing on his opponent's known weak spot, and for anyone who has ever been involved in a family conflict that evolves into a matter of pride, it's nothing short of heartbreaking to see the people who should be supporting one another in tragedy instead torn apart by it. As James Quinn McDonagh sits down to watch a videotape from the Joyces featuring photographs of the two men whose lives were claimed in the strife, we wish that he would just reach out to his cousins so their children could grow up playing together instead of punching each other's teeth out, but when Michael emerges as the clear aggressor in a vicious fight against Brian Joyce's son David, it becomes disturbingly clear that the original context of the hostilities has been long forgotten, and that the family is doomed to go on destroying itself for generations. By the time we see Big Joe Joyce emerge from retirement to trade blows with yet another rival, the sight of two unctuous grandfathers bloody and battered in the mud brings back to mind that image of Big Joe's descendant, forever trapped in the dark shadow of violence.
Although Palmer takes great pains to avoid letting Knuckle devolve into pure exploitation by presenting the feud in a recognizable context, the film offers a sobering reminder that the only true context of violence is the violence itself. It may not make for the most enjoyable or entertaining viewing experience, though it does afford us the unique opportunity to recognize the incredible power of forgiveness in a world where that particular concept seems all but lost.