Knuckleball (2018) [Fantasia 2018]

It’s disheartening when you’re watching a very good movie from a group of people you love, and then as the film reaches its home stretch you can see the wheels slowly coming off. That’s what “Knuckleball” was like. It’s a great idea, and a twisted premise with some great performances, but by the final twenty minutes it gets unnecessarily weird with a twist that feels tacked on and absolutely out of left field. Which is not to say “Knuckleball” is a bad movie, since right up until the final twenty minutes, I’d highly recommend it as a wrenching of the “Home Alone” formula that also kind of feels like a spiritual companion piece to M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit.”

Mary and Paul are two distant parents on the way to a funeral, and have decided to leave their son Henry with Mary’s somewhat distant father. He’s a crusty old man committed to spending every day working around his farm, and greets Henry with open arms despite barely knowing the boy. While working with his grandfather, Henry meets a young man named Dixon, a weird guy who invites Henry for a tour around the farm house. After he witnesses a peculiar encounter with Dixon and his grandfather, Henry escapes in his video game. The next morning he awakens to learn his grandfather has passed away in his sleep. Horrified he goes seeking Dixon’s help, but he soon realizes it’s the worst mistake he could have made as Dixon now uses the opportunity to act on some horrendous plans he has for young Henry.

“Knuckleball” straddles with greatness every now and then, working as a taut and vicious thriller that involves a very teeth grinding game of cat and mouse between Dixon and Henry. What I love is how every scene in the opening foreshadows something that will become crucial later in the film, and director Peterson insists you pay attention. From a bottle of pills falling in the car, to Henry trapping orcs in barb wire in his video game, it’s like a puzzle that comes slamming together. This also makes it all the more intense, as Henry has to think on his feet and put his overwhelming fear behind him if he hopes to survive. Peterson derives some wonderful performances from his small cast, including Michael Ironside, Luca Villacis, and especially Munro Chambers.

I’ve been a fan of Chambers since “Degrassi” and loved his turn in “Turbo Kid.” Here he’s almost unrecognizable as this twisted predator who is cunning, but comes across a potential victim who has him matched. Like most films of this ilk, Henry is a sly, clever, and quick witted child but one who thankfully is written about as realistic as possible. Audiences will find it easy to root for him, especially considering he makes wise, and right decisions at every turn. Chambers works well of Villacis, and even stages a classic scene of Henry rigging his grandfather’s house for the impending confrontation with Dixon. Sadly, as we hit the finale, “Knuckleball” falls apart with some odd revelations, a small hint of the supernatural element, and a twist that left me asking questions that the film never clarifies or even resolves.

“Knuckleball” had me hooked on every single moment, but by the end I was basically scratching my head and gazing in disbelief. That said, “Knuckleball” is a great survival thriller with some stellar turns by its cast, and while it’s not the best of its kind (ahem—“The Aggression Scale,” anyone?), it’s certainly a fun chiller.

Fantasia 2018 runs from July 12th to August 2nd, 2018.