“All for a name,” laments a Traveller woman in Knuckle, in a sequence where the aunts and wives of participants in a decades-long series of arranged fights among three Irish gypsy clans weigh in on the apparently endless cycle of chest-beating provocations (usually delivered on video) and primitive bloodletting. The central figure in Ian Palmer’s self-narrated documentary, shot over 12 years, is James Quinn McDonagh, a sad-eyed, bullet-headed man whose prowess with his fists makes him a hero to his followers and the bête noire of the Joyces, cousins of the Quinn McDonaghs who have harbored a hatred for their relations since James’s brother killed one of their number in an early-‘90s wedding brawl. But it’s not purely a blood feud; tens of thousands of pounds are wagered on each contest, refereed in “fair” fashion by weary old men in down coats on isolated country roads, and the denials on both sides sound increasingly hollow when the factions are repeatedly baited into resuming hostilities after a few years of ceasefire. (The matches, whose combatants often wear handwraps and can battle for hours, take up about a third of the film, and certainly implicate the viewer caught up in the suspense and primal spectacle of the fights.)
James, aged 34 when a young Joyce boxer goads him into a comeback, is articulate and sporadically charming, but with no stated profession aside from part-time landscaping and nightclub security work, he’s an old 34. An exacting life of drink, vengeance, and perpetual threats and violence shows grimly in the faces of the Quinn McDonagh men, and while Palmer’s empathy with the clannish fealty that’s the only fire in their lives is sincere, these people’s willingness to stay inside a cage with an open door ultimately keeps their dead-end rivalry from attaining the scope of tragedy. Big Joe Joyce, a mutton-chopped blowhard grandpa who leads his clan with a pro wrestler’s love of (helpfully subtitled) boasting trash talk, provides some comic relief, but even that dissipates into grotesquerie when he comes out of “retirement” to pummel and bite another senior citizen in a match presided over by an apparently cash-strapped James. “A war is about something,” one Joyce sighs when the vendettas of Knuckle are compared to a clash of armies, and our lasting sympathy is only engaged by the whooping pre-adolescent boys running and sparring around the fringes of these Traveller bloodlettings, who may be burdened by a future of endemic self-destruction rather than passing through a fleeting phase of youthful machismo.