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Irish brawlers take ring in bloody documentary

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - Family feuds have fascinated dramatists for centuries, and an intriguing modern-day variation of the story of the Hatfields and the McCoys is told in the Irish film “KNUCKLE,” which screened in Sundance’s world cinema documentary competition

Director Ian Palmer spent 12 years chronicling the bare-knuckle fistfights held within the Travelers community in Ireland to try to resolve long-simmering antagonisms. The film has limited box office potential in the U.S., but HBO has bought remake rights, a sure sign of the universality of these tales of primal family conflicts.

In this latest variation, the chief antagonists are the Quinn McDonaghs and their cousins, the Joyces. Palmer became aware of the conflict when he was asked to videotape the wedding of Michael Quinn McDonagh in 1997 and learned of the animosity between the two families. They permitted him to film several of their bloody fistfights over the next 10 years, and he eventually edited the footage to try to make sense of the tension.

No doubt part of the violence stems from the inbred nature of the Travelers, who also have offshoots in England and even in the American South. Originally these families were gypsies without any firm roots. They intermarried and held themselves apart from the larger society. Today they tend to live in more permanent housing, but they still hold grudges with the ferocity of their ancestors. The particular feud documented in “KNUCKLE” grew out of a barroom brawl that left one of the cousins dead and another sent to jail for manslaughter.

While the families allowed Palmer unprecedented access, there are still frustrating gaps in the film. Palmer tries to interview the women in the family, and while they are polite, most of them seem close-mouthed and unwilling or unable to vent any sense of discontent. The film also fails to probe the deeper roots or implications of this male universe soaked in blood. Palmer keeps his focus tightly on the families, which makes the movie admirably unpretentious but also incomplete.

Nevertheless, the picture has a vibrant central character in James McDonagh, the leading fighter in the clan who begins to question the rites of violence. His chief rival, Big Joe Joyce, also emerges as a colorfully compelling figure. The fistfights are vibrantly edited by Ollie Huddleston, and the handheld camerawork -- if slightly overused -- adds immediacy. Although the film fails to achieve the depth we crave, it is always engaging to watch.