Knuckleball (2018) [Fantasia 2018]

Following a death in his father’s family, a young boy is dropped off at his maternal grandfather so that his parents can go to the funeral. Once there, grandpa puts him to work and shows him a few things about baseball. As this happens, the odd neighbor comes and goes on the property. As things advance, young Henry has to go get this neighbor for assistance and things go from bad to worse, forcing him to fend for himself and fight for his life.

Director Michael Peterson, with writing by Kevin Cockle and himself and story editing by Jordan Scott, takes a fairly simple story, sets it in the middle of nowhere, then cranks the stress way up, giving no option to the young lead but to show how strong he is and how he can survive even when left to his own devices. Here, the lead being a child is something that works great and adds extra layers to both the situation and the villain in the story. Without giving too much away, the three main characters spend most of the film together and the location plays a big part in the story and how things develop and ultimately end. Being that Knuckleball is one of those films that is definitely worth trying to see without knowing anything, this is all that will be said about the story itself here. In terms of script and direction, the crew creates a film that is strong and hits hard. It shows a great mastering of his craft, even with just a few credits under his belt. For those familiar with his work, this one is a 180 from his previously-shown at Fantasia title Lloyd the Conqueror which was a comedy about LARPing. Here there is no comedy, it’s dark and it’s a bit rough to watch, but these elements make it that much more rewarding to watch as they are well-executed with talent and a strong vision.

The cast here truly shines with Luca Villacis as Henry really coming on top, giving an emotionally powerful performance that sets him apart even in his young years. Playing against him for most of the film in a sort of dance of violence is Munro Chambers shedding his usual image and going full tilt evil here, his character of Dixon going after Henry with all he’s got. His work here is very different than what most are used to seeing from him and it works fantastically well. What he does with Dixon in this film shows he has serious range and can easily break out from his Turbo Kid, sweet kid, image. Working with both of them on some level throughout the film is Michael Ironside as Henry’s grandfather’s Jacob. His presence alone is enough to add to any movie and it’s no different here. His performance is on par with what is now expected of him, strong, present, overtaking of all scenes whether planned or not, he is one of those actors that can’t be overlooked any time he’s on screen and it’s no different here. To the credit of the film’s writing and directing, his minimal use is done to great effect and he gets to give a powerful performance that will help the viewer in understanding along with the characters but will also make them question things here and there. The performances by these three make the film what it is, a strong, performance-based creeper of a film set in mostly one location.

Knuckleball makes create use of its beautiful score by David Arcus and Michelle Osis. The score here is reminiscent of older scores, not a synthwave note to be heard (or remembered), and a score that feels lush in places, making the film feel expensive and hit the right emotional notes throughout with that assist. The film’s score here knows when to underline, when to stay quiet, and when to go full blast, something few movies seem to know how to do lately. As a sort of extra character, the music brings a lot to the table here without ever over-shadowing the action on the screen. Working hand in hand with the cinematography by Jon Thomas and the editing by Rob Grant and Glenn Sakatch, the music marries the images brought the screen to make them even more powerful. The film is carefully shot and thus the maelstrom of images and music, what is heard and what is seen works to the story’s advantage throughout.

Knuckleball is a strong outing in the cat versus mouse sub-genre of thrillers, with a dance between the two leads that goes back and forth many times before anyone takes over fully and “wins”. The film uses the darkness in people and creates something chilling, using the capacities of its cast to their best. The choice of Munro Chambers for the part of Dixon is a great one and he gets to show something most have not seen from him before, giving a powerfully dark performance. The film looks great and sounds perfect, creating a perfect storm to keep the viewer entranced and wanting to know what will happen next. Knuckleball is carefully-crafted from every level and shows how taking the time to work at one’s craft can pay off. It’s one of those films that is a must-see not only for how the story evolves or the cast, but for the overall effect it has on viewers.

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