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Ian Palmer's breathtaking documentary, which premiered at Fantastic Fest 2011, literally knocks the wind out of you and very nearly everyone on the screen as well. It's Fight Club meets the Hatfields and McCoys by way of ancient Irish animosity and bone-deep traditions whose origins are lost in the mist of time. Palmer, a sometime commercial director and documentarian, toiled on Knuckle for 12 long years, and as a result, we get to watch the two feuding broods – the Quinn McDonaghs, led by ace bare-knuckle bruiser James, the film's resident protagonist, and the opposing Joyce clan – in intimate detail as babies are born and old folks pass on and still their blood continues to boil over … what, exactly?
That's but one of the central questions Palmer's film examines, and it's never answered to anyone's satisfaction, which, paradoxically, is perfectly satisfactory for the film as a whole. Why do feuds (or, for that matter, tribal conflicts, wars, etc.) begin yet often never quite seem to resolve themselves? The answer is – cue Tevye! – tradition! These two sprawling, brawling Irish families have been busting one another’s noggins for so long they're no longer concerned with what started the whole kerfuffle. They simply goad one another, by way of videotaped challenges à la hip-hop's more lyrical tauntings, and one of the strange pleasures of Knuckle is how Palmer's visual imagery – shaky, handheld, often ill-miked – changes from grainy Hi8 to mini-DV to full-on HD over the dozen years he followed the two tribal groups (brothers, cousins, nieces, nephews, sons, and daughters all) up and down the back, police-free lanes of Ireland and England.
Knuckle's most anthropologically fascinating feat is its provision of an insider's view of the highly secretive and insular group of Irish Gypsies known as Travellers. If you saw Brad Pitt as the marble-mouthed bruiser Mickey O'Neil in Snatch, then you've seen a fairly accurate-yet-fictional Traveller character onscreen. Knuckle is the real deal, with the strapping, brutally human Traveller clans butting heads with not only one another but with the very future of their subculture's existence. (Obviously, the Irish government views this archaic lifestyle as something of a blot on modern Ireland's reputation.) But as Palmer rightly shows, there's plenty of heart and soul (rough-and-tumble though it may be) beneath the acres of scar tissue on display here. The Quinn McDonaghs and the Joyces remain, for now, bloodied but unbowed.