Director/Producer Ian Palmer spent close to a decade following the exploits of two warring traveller families, the Quinn Mc Donaghs and the Joyces, and the film pays particular attention to James and Michael Quinn Mc Donagh, two brothers at the forefront of the feud between the two clans, the former older and almost, it seems, reluctant to fight, the latter hot headed and with , it seems, a lot to prove.We follow the two , along with their kin, through a series of battles with the members of the Joyce family, mostly conducted along country lanes and refereed by members of neutral families.We also get an insight into the home life of the men on both sides of the feud,an insight that is fascinating particularly if you are not Irish, and have always wondered about the other side of Irish culture, one that does not feature heavily in tourist guides, one can imagine.
First off, and although it goes without saying, the fights are horrific, for the most part.Filmed on cheap cameras, and clearly shot by men worried about their own personal well being, the initial impression, and one that the director himself acknowledges, is one of watching a video nasty.Unflinching in their spare, shaky style(essentially it's high quality YouTube footage) they give the documentary a feeling of gritty immersion that other documentaries of this nature sometimes lack .The rest of the film is made up of interviews conducted with the various men involved, and these, it has to be said are possibly the strongest part of the film, with the most interesting subject being James, a charismatic,seemingly loving family man, who for much of the documentary appears to be at odds with his status as a bona fide hardman in a world chock full of them.It is his contributions that are the most interesting, and provide an interesting contrast against the comparative belligerence of his brother, and rivals.
However,despite Palmer's repeated attempts to dig deeper into the causes of the feuds, Knuckle never really digs deep enough into this netherworld to provide any real answers.There is also the nagging feeling, which Palmer also acknowledges at one point in this narration , of a feeling of a voyeuristic thrill on the part of the filmmaker at watching such brutal contests, and this, it has to be said,was reflect on my own personal viewing of the film.There were indeed moments where, rather than be horrified by the pointlessness of one of these brawls, I was instead slightly looking forward to seeing the next one.And this , I feel, is the film's major failing, as , rather than condemn these fights as what they are, mindless thugs resolving minor conflict with major violence, we instead get , through an admittedly slick editing job, a sort of roughshod fighting/redemption flick, with the protagonists showing no real regret or indeed care that they are doing real damage to themselves and the men they fight.
Moral quandaries aside though , Knuckle is a fascinating and candid look at an otherwise hidden world, and an equally fascinating group of men, that those outside of the travelling community would never otherwise get a chance to see.And perhaps it is the film's non judgemental and self reflective outlook that will ensure it is one to be debated and discussed long after the final credits have rolled.Gripping, powerful, if at times maybe too sympathetic towards it's subjects.
Stephen O ' Connor