[Calgary Underground Film Festival] Knuckleball (2018) - Reviewed

As the snow comes down heavy over this 'Home Alone Uncut: Kevin McCallister’s' Nightmare thriller we find ourselves in, get ready to feel an unsettling chill creep in. Left with his grandfather by his preoccupied and rattled parents for the weekend, a young boy finds himself fighting for his life after an unfortunate turn of events sees him get close to revealing a dark secret that has lay dormant and locked away within the family homestead until now. As we watch the young protagonist Henry laying traps along the cellar steps, I kept wondering when the Christmas tree decorations and a tarantula would appear.

Knuckleball, a gimmick within a gimmick that may look like a horror movie trope mash-up, throws a few curve balls into the mix (I’m sorry I couldn’t help myself) that makes for enjoyable and not quite so wholesome family fun. Yes, all the classics are here; the credits open onto remote overhead drone farmland shots, to invoke the impending isolation, the increasingly bad weather, unreliable technology, creepy neighbors, distant and stern guardian figures, animals acting aggressively and the slow panning shots of an ominous locked barn. Then there is the foreshadowing, oh the foreshadowing. But it all pays off. I felt my inner critic quieten as we sunk deeper into the trenches of this more than meets the eye Alberta Indie film production.

With a skeleton crew on deck and a time focused 24 day shoot, director Michael Peterson rubbed his hands together and got to work utilizing the beautiful location of Alberta, the charismatic lure of Michael Ironside and the wealth of experience he has amassed from attending over 75 film festivals. He knows what works. He knows how to put all the pieces together.

“We’re trying to make a marketable film people actually want to watch.”

Did I mention the foreshadowing? Each shot is thoughtfully crafted and appears for a particular reason. It lends the film an artistic and quietly mature quality that shines through any preconceptions left behind by the cheap use of a baseball play as a modality used to market the film. It also reminds me why trailers and marketing in general often miss the mark, misrepresent and don’t have the creators’insight at heart. The big name of this production, Michael Ironside, took on this script after already knowing the director for more than a decade. He also brought onboard Munro Chambers, who he’d worked with on an earlier production.

It was during this back and forth on set that he must have caught a glimpse of that maniacal spark that lead to his genuinely unsettling portrayal of the character Dixon. Who I believe could be considered both the victim and the monster in this scenario. Munro’s earlier casting choices had him boxed in which would have taken him down a predictable route earning a decent living as the blue eyed male lead. But when Michael Ironside gives you the green light to shed that safe poster boy aesthetic, can you really say no? And that’s what works so well. He still comes onto the screen with that sexy tousled boyish exterior but something much darker lurks behind that lingering smile. Know one knows what it’s like behind blue eyes (I’m sorry I will try to stop).

The film does a good job of walking the line between commercial feature and gritty art house production. It’s hedging its bets. But it does touch upon some real issues. A line that is delivered by multiple characters is actually taken from the lips of Michael Peterson’s father. His goal during creation of Knuckleball was to explore the idea of growing up and learning about your parents as people and individuals in their own right. Along with all the secrets they keep. Ironside with his stern and gruff archetypal grandfather and the slowly unwinding Dixon both felt like strong character portrayals when they had isolated screen time, but the other characters in the family dynamic often felt wooden and forced during interactions. Almost as though they were faceless, nameless puppets placed throughout the production to further the plot. Lucas Villacis, as the resourceful Henry comes into his own towards the latter half of the film, but even his presence feels formulaic for the most part.

In its entirety I think the majority of movie goers looking for a decent visually engaging thriller that is filled with enough suspense to make the experience enjoyable will leave with what they paid for. But I think for the discernible horror/thriller genre consumer, they may hear their inner critic pipe up and find fault. That look of disappointment from a parent comes to mind. What could have been a much deeper and voyeuristic exploration into shifting family dynamics, parental lineage and the effects of the unhealed wounds of adolescence, became a seat filling, walking ghost of thrillers past montage, interwoven with some fantastic character acting. Cheap thrills and engaging performances, which is surely what you get when Michael Ironside gets involved in a thriller centered around baseball metaphors.

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-Erin Ring