I think I’m going to need a hot shower after what I just watched. Releasing this past weekend on VOD, Knuckleball may end up being one of the most thematically disturbing films of the year…
…Directed by Michael Peterson and written by Peterson and Kevin Cockle, Knuckleball concerns a boy named Henry (Luca Villacis) who goes to stay with his grandpa, Jacob (Michael Ironside) while his parents deal with some issues. But when Jacob suddenly passes away in the middle of the night, Henry finds himself in the middle of nowhere, dead of winter, with no way to contact his parents, alone with creepy neighbor, Dixon (Munro Chambers), who has some sinister plans of his own for Henry.
From the moment Knuckleball opens until the final, bloody seconds, the film sets a dark tone that never lets up once during the entire ninety-minute run time. A lot of that can be attributed to the incredible cast and their roles, all of which have a disturbing element to them. Henry is part of a family with mom (Kathleen Munroe) and dad (Chenier Hundal) that has become a family on the edge. There doesn’t appear to be much love amongst the three, and it has left everyone tense and boiling up inside, including Henry, who harbors a violent side as a result (and what kind of mother leaves her only son at a place that she KNOWS has some bad juju to it? Just a thought). You have the always foreboding Michael Ironside, who is wonderful as ever in his role of the secretive grandpa. And then there’s the real star of the show, Munro Chambers, who is perfectly sadistic and wears the insanity of his character well. In a film featuring Ironside, one of my favorite actors of all time, I never thought I’d mention anyone else as stealing the show, but here we are.
What works so well with the characters is that this is primarily a cat and mouse struggle between Henry and Dixon, a boy and a psychopathic man, but, despite Henry’s age, he is cunning, extremely intelligent, and surprisingly vicious, which makes him an equal match for Dixon. In that sense, Knuckleball plays out like the horror version of Home Alone, only Dixon wants something much worse than stolen junk, and Henry could kick Mcaulay Culkin’s ass. Normally, I’m not a fan of horror films which star kids, but wow, does Villacis carry his own in this flick. Villacis has all the tools to give the audience a sense of vulnerability, while being completely believable that he is a badass, take no shit kid. Forget burning criminals hands with doorknobs, Henry sets up traps involving barbed wire, knives, and lots and lots of fire. I guess it pays to join the scouts, boys and girls. Villacis deserves recognition for holding his own against Chambers, who can go from an eerie smile to seething with rage in a flash of the eyes. Chambers is a sick delight to watch, as is the battle between he and Henry, which is full of deception, strength of will, and a literal cutthroat attitude.
As you’ve already guessed, Knuckleball is a film which deals with the darker sides of human psychology. These are complicated characters, and in that, there is a deeply sinister nature to Knuckleball. Some viewers may not be able to handle the frankly disgusting implications which are prevalent all throughout, but to Peterson’s credit, everything, from the violence to one queasy moment when Dixon finally gets his hands on Henry, is handled with the utmost care and taste so as to not push audiences to the brink of walking out. Instead, Peterson presents us with a film that is sure to make viewers uncomfortable, but which is focused on the entertainment value of the subject and less on exploiting the subject of pedophilia for shock value, unlike films like I Spit on Your Grave, which are nothing but.
Knuckleball takes a while to develop, carefully introducing its characters and sub plots before the shit really goes down. But once it goes down, it REALLY goes down. Knuckleball quickly becomes a pulse-pounding thrill ride with an array of “oh-shit moments” that will leave you either wide-eyed or turning away because Peterson has no issue with being aggressive in his displaying of violence. This is one of those kinds of films that digs deeper and deeper into fucked up territory as time goes on. Knuckleball is a short descent into the darkest, most primal depths of the human brain, with twist after twist that just takes us further and further down.
While the film is plenty engaging, Knuckleball is not some inventive masterpiece that is going to sit with the viewer long after the credits roll. Every aspect of Knuckleball feels familiar, and the kills, few as there are, leave a lot to be desired in terms of creativity. Especially for a film which seems to pride itself on the out-of-the-box thinking of its hero, Henry. Though Henry’s clever traps are fun and even a bit nasty, there is nothing here we haven’t seen before. And no, I’m not expecting Saw, nor should I, but the main draw here in terms of entertainment is Henry’s intelligence in “catching a predator”, and there really isn’t anything that stands out as memorable for its originality. Using Henry’s newly learned ability to throw a great ball could’ve been used a bit more as well. As it is, I’m left wondering what the point to the baseball theme ever really was.
You’d also be surprised to learn that, while Knuckleball earns all of my praise as being a gritty, violent, smart cat and mouse thriller, the ending lacks a real punch. Instead, Peterson hits a great flyer, runs past third base, on his way to winning the game, slides to the plate, and just barely gets tapped out. Knuckleball comes so close to being a home run, but there is something about the ending which feels too clean and neatly wrapped up to fit the rest of the film. Also missing is one last effort from Henry to outwit Dixon. Again, the plot is heavily predicated on this, and since I always prefer to not spoil anything, I’ll simply say that Henry is not the active protagonist we’d like him to be in the ending, which is heavily disappointing because the audience is craving that spectacular moment in which Henry defeats the sick pervert which has been trying to get his hands on him, but Knuckleball does not deliver the satisfying ending you hope for.
Knuckleball isn’t perfect. The cast is exceptional, the tone deliciously macabre, the violence cringe-worthy, and the overall plot entertaining and thrilling, but Peterson also swings a few strikes when he should be knocking it out of the park. Knuckleball may not be the life changing experience of the Cubs winning the world series (if you’re from Chicago, that is), but it’s a win nonetheless.
Knuckleball is available now on VOD.
By Matt Konopka
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