Hit Over the Head, by David Bax
In Guy Ritchie’s 2000 film Snatch, Brad Pitt plays a man named Mickey O’Neil, a member of a sort of gypsy clan and a brutally efficient bare-knuckle boxer. Ritchie’s films not being noted for their verisimilitude, I never much considered what, if any, truth lay behind that character and his world. As it turns out, there is a real-life basis for that scenario, though Snatch would likely be considered offensive in its simplification and misappropriation of what is actually a heavily codified and important part of Irish traveller existence. Ian Palmer’s documentary Knuckle follows actual traveller bare-knuckle boxers and their families and clans for twelve years. It’s an insightful film, if problematic in the way Palmer frames it.
Knuckle’s main subject is James Quinn McDonagh. James is a huge slab of a man who participates in these fights on behalf of the Quinn-McDonaghs against whatever other clan they are disagreeing with at the moment. Over the dozen years of the film, James is a wearied presence, ambivalent about the necessity and usefulness of these fights while always dedicatedly showing up for them when he is called. As the torch passes from James to another Quinn McDonagh, Michael, James steps into a role of authority, managing Michael and refereeing fights between other clans.
James is a worthy subject for a documentary. His physical presence is stupendous but, furthermore, he is intelligent, charming and shockingly level-headed for someone who does what he does. Michael is more of a loudmouth in the early going but we get to watch him take himself and his fights more seriously under James’ tutelage. A number of others show up here and again across the course of the film, many of whom can be quite accurately described as characters. One in particular, the head of the Joyce clan, bears a massive gut, a delightfully foul mouth and a haircut that looks to be self-administered.
Colorful presences like that run through the world of the movie. It’s a shame that Palmer did not latch onto them more. Knuckle could have found cinematic purchase in the exaggerated and almost comic level of provocations and insults hurled back and forth among the clans. The fact that they make and distribute videos of themselves taunting each other and have t-shirts made that glorify their chosen pugilistic representatives is darkly funny, even as the sources of the animosity (murder, for one) are somber and grave. Yet Palmer seems unwilling to admit that there is anything to be taken less than seriously here.
In his defense, it’s hard not to feel the same once the fists actually start flying. Palmer’s access is remarkable. He’s right up close to these fights, which take place discretely on secluded farms or country back roads. The lack of filmic possibilities you see in boxing movies or even in professional boxing itself actually makes the film more intriguing. The queasy smack of a naked fist against a face; the real, flowing blood from the recipient’s eye; the broken hand of the man who dealt the blow. All of this is immediate and palpable, as well as being invigorating in a way that may make you feel shame for your inherent, animalistic bloodlust.
Sadly, Palmer doesn’t trust us enough to allow us to examine our own ethical reactions. The movie’s most egregious flaw is the persistent moralizing of the director (who also narrates). When he speaks – over footage of a fight between fat, old men – about how he considered ceasing the project for moral reasons, I found myself wishing I could tap him on the shoulder and remind him that he is not the subject of the film. We want insight into James and those like him. We don’t need to be told outright what’s going through the director’s mind.
Interestingly, the film serves a historical purpose completely apart from the documenting of this fascinating underworld. Having been shot over the course of twelve years, from 1997 to 2009, it’s a testament to how drastically video image quality has improved over that period. In the same year as Parnormal Activity 3, wherein we are supposed to believe we are looking at footage shot in 1988, it’s revealing to note how little definition home video footage had even in 1997.
One thing about documentaries is that, even when they are mediocre in execution, they can be exceedingly watchable on the strength of their subjects alone. Knuckle allows you to spend an hour and a half inside a ceaselessly captivating world you likely didn’t even know existed. That alone is worth something. It’s unfortunate that Palmer wasn’t interested in doing more with what he had, though.