Parents Mary (Kathleen Munroe) and Paul (Chenier Hundal) aren’t getting along well, so Paul uses a death in the family as an excuse to drop their twelve-year-old son, Henry (Luca Villacis), off with a grandfather he’s never met before simply for more alone time with his wife. That the grandfather lives alone on an isolated farm without a phone during a harsh winter solidifies this setting as a perfect recipe for disaster. Sure enough, everything that could go wrong does, and Henry soon finds himself relying on his wits for survival.
Director and co-writer Michael Peterson borrows some core ideas from Home Alone. Like Kevin McCallister, Henry is initially content being left to his own devices when his parents leave him behind. Like Kevin, his parents frantically try to rush back when they realize something is wrong, but are slowed down by major obstacles like severe winter weather. Finally, Henry and Kevin both share a knack for making creative use of whatever is lying around to build traps for the ones that would mean them harm. Beyond that, the films are night and day as Knuckleball is far more bleak and bloody than its Christmastime counterpart.
The cinematography is stunning, and cinematographer Jon Thomas makes excellent use of the beautiful wintry landscape. The wide shots convey just how remote this farm is and how harsh the conditions, but it’s also breathtaking. The dull, dark neutral interiors in contrast to the bright blanket of white outdoors is symbolic and a visually pleasing aesthetic. And there is a lot of ugly within the farm. Peterson hints at a lot of dark secrets early on, particularly when mom Mary shows signs of trauma upon setting foot on the farm, and the narrative takes its time unraveling just what those secrets are. They’re so well guarded that just when you think you’ve grasped the full picture, Peterson drops a third act reveal that genuinely shocks.
Peterson has deftly mastered the art of the misdirect here. Earlier shots that linger too long on barbed wire and various items that Henry will later use in his trap building feels way too heavy-handed in its foreshadowing, lulling you into a false sense of predictability. While you can and will predict where some of the story will go, there’s a lot you won’t.
The core cast is great. Villacis plays Henry with a quiet curiosity and intelligence, but a sweet vulnerability fitting of his age. Michael Ironside is Henry’s gruff grandpa Jacob, someone who has no time for child’s play but finds common ground with Henry over a shared appreciation of baseball. Then there’s Dixon (Munro Chambers), Jacob’s sole neighbor with whom he doesn’t get along. Ironside and Chambers shared the screen before in cult hit Turbo Kid, and once again have an antagonistic relationship here. There’s almost a role reversal here, though, as Chambers’ Dixon is a far less likable character than his plucky hero in Turbo Kid.
The tensions between characters explode into violence and mortal danger. Henry’s life is on the line and the traps he sets to ward off his attacker are far more dangerous than anything Kevin McCallister came up with. Things get downright brutal, and the makeup effects are effectively gnarly.
A fast-paced, explosive thriller that steps into horror territory, Knuckleball is pretty grim, especially for its young lead. Where it loses steam, though, is with questionable character choices by Mary and Paul and the weird melodrama of the late game reveal. It steps into soap opera and away from the intended horror, and leaves the viewer with a lot of questions that remain unanswered. Even still, Knuckeball is a well-executed thriller unafraid to embrace is violent darkness or put its child lead in peril. Brutal, bloody, and full of surprises, this one is a flawed but entertaining ride.