Anyone wondering where the term “Fightin’ Irish” comes from need look no further than this almost unbearably brutal documentary about the semi-secretive world of Irish Traveler bare-knuckle fighting. Shot over a period of 12 years by director Ian Palmer, Knuckle shows us that some problems can only be fixed (or maintained) through violence as it chronicles the long-running disputes between Ireland’s formerly nomadic clans and the boxing matches devised as ways to settle the scores. The main focus here is the McDonagh clan and its fighting brothers, James, Paddy and Michael; their battles and interviews are intercut with stories from other families, including the Nevins and the McDonagh’s main rivals, the Joyces; the “Fair Fights” in which they engage are bone-crunching spectacles of sheer force and bloody bravado, held in isolated areas so as to avoid interference from the police and discourage any extended family members eager to jump in. As far as production values go, Knuckle is about as ragged, scrappy and DIY as you can get, but its unapologetic examination of a hidden, violent culture makes for an undeniably emotional and rousing experience (if not a logical or humanistic one, as oftentimes the family members can’t quite remember what sparked these vicious feuds in the first place).
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