Knuckle is a documentary about feuding families of Irish Travelers who settle their grudges with bare-knuckle boxing matches, so it’s bound to be inherently fascinating, regardless of how well it’s assembled. First-time filmmaker Ian Palmer has been following his subjects, the Quinn McDonagh clan, for more than a decade, and the film exhibits both the benefit of that long investment, and the problem that likely kept Palmer at it for so long—there’s no escalation, no conclusion, just a series of brutal bouts in the name of grudges that will never be settled. It’s an involving but frustrating peek into a private culture involved in a self-defeating cycle of violence and mythologizing.
Hired as a videographer at the wedding of then-18-year-old Michael Quinn McDonagh, Palmer was intrigued by the groom’s charismatic older brother James, an undefeated boxer. Brought on to shoot James’ fight with someone from the rival Joyce family, Palmer was hooked, and no wonder—the spectacle of the two men slugging it out on a country road is ugly but transfixing. Neither is built like a traditional athlete, and under the watchful eyes of the two referees (also Travelers), one leaves the other’s face a bloody mess. The Quinn McDonaghs and their foes aren’t strangers to documentation: They all have a history of recording taunts and mailing them to their targets, the insults often providing enough of a goad to end with one man “sending for” another to battle, and these jiggly home videos are cut into the film, along with some amateur footage of fights Palmer was forbidden to attend.
Knuckle leaves a lot of questions open: What business occupies James during the day? (Knuckle strongly suggests that it’s illegal.) What do the women, who mostly stay off-camera, think of all of this? Many of those questions are the consequence of Palmer not being part of the Traveler community, and not being allowed full access, no matter how much time he spends in their company. Most importantly, the film tries to get to the bottom of the family disagreements, and what it uncovers suggests that the causes are unimportant. In spite of what the combatants so often tell the camera, the feuds are the excuse for the fighting, not the reason behind it. “It’s got me nowhere in life,” James says late in the film, and it’s easy to agree, though it means Knuckle is all blarney behind the fisticuffs.