“Knuckle”, a new documentary about an age-old feud between two traveller families, is not by any stretch a polished film. In fact, it’s not even a particularly gripping film. Structured around a decade of repetitively bleak bare-knuckle dust-ups between the Quinn McDonaghs and the Joyces, who slug it out in muddy car parks and country lanes from Oxford to Dundalk, trying to determine once and for all - well, no one quite remembers what.
Certainly there was a bar brawl in the early Nineties after which “Curly” Paddy Quinn McDonagh served time for the manslaughter of Brian Joyce. The enmity between the two families – many of whom, due to the insularity of traveller communities, are related – existed before that and, you suspect, will continue long after Curly Paddy has joined Brian in the sod.
But for all its lack of narrative arc, where “Knuckle” packs a punch is in what it tells us about men, violence, and the inanity of an eye-for-an-eye justice for which there can be no end. “Knuckle” hints at the bigger story: that this isn’t about individual grievances, it’s about fuelling a sense of forward momentum – giving your clan a need to be bigger, stronger and tougher, when simply surviving is no longer a concern. It justifies barrel-chested grandfathers bloodying each other’s whiskered mouths. It justifies skin headed boys shadow-boxing each other with uncomprehending delight. And it justifies grown men making low-grade videos of themselves wearing Eighties leather jackets, lifting dumbbells made of bricks, and calling their neighbours a “cowardly pack of bollocks”. And so the world turns. Knuckle is out on DVD now.
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A more eloquent take on the punch-up
While we’re on the subject of men beating the bejesus out of each other, allow us to bring your attention to Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog. It’s a lyrical and frank account of how, in a downbeat Massachusetts town in the Seventies, the author’s adolescent urge to become tough enough to protect himself and his family turned into something else: a need to fight for the sake of fighting, to turn another man’s face “bone-white, his lower face wet and red, his mouth a dark hole”, just because he could. Brooding, brutal and strangely beautiful. Townie: A Memoir (Norton) by Andre Dubus III is out now.