Studio: Freestyle Digital Media
Director: Michael Peterson
Writer: Kevin Cockle, Michael Peterson
Producer: Julian Black Antelope, Michael Peterson, Lars Lehmann, Kurtis David Harder
Stars: Luca Villacis, Munro Chambers, Michael Ironside, Kathleen Munroe, Chenier Hundal, Krista Bridges
Unexpected events turn a young boy’s visit to his grandfather’s isolated farm into a torturous night of terror.
Of course it’s easy to see where the “it’s like” comes from. Although the sequence only occupies a few minutes, “Knuckleball” does feature a solitary boy in a wintry setting defending himself using makeshift booby traps. But word-of-mouth selling Michael Peterson’s thriller as horror’s “Home Alone” does the movie a more misleading disservice by implying mischievous mirth when “Knuckleball” is in fact gloomily gripping.
While his parents spend their weekend flying away for a funeral, Henry spends his on his gruff grandfather Jacob’s remote Canadian farm. Reports on the radio warn of an imminent snowstorm. Jacob mentions how his house doesn’t have a landline. Glued to a game, Henry sucks most of the juice from his cellphone before realizing he forgot to pack a charger. Given these portents of what lies ahead, Henry and Jacob are clearly doomed to become more isolated than they already were.
Taking lines of communication off the table like this may be a necessary first act evil, yet “Knuckleball” only deals in commonplace clichés as minimally required. Other early scenes show Henry using ingenuity to capture a stray cat and initiative to spontaneously cook breakfast. True, the film means to set the table for later so the audience has an inkling of Henry’s resourcefulness as well as the circumstances fighting against him. Regardless, “Knuckleball” weaves in these moments well, giving Henry a natural curiosity to organically establish his abilities without totally telegraphing everything to come.
Besides, no matter what you think you see coming, “Knuckleball” still has armfuls of suspenseful surprises in store.
Unusual for a smaller indie, the first 15 minutes take place entirely outdoors. Often quiet with its initially steady simmer, “Knuckleball” stays compact with just three main players. But a great location lends the production incredible visual value. Jacob does roof repairs on a scaffold, Henry shovels manure, and the camera constantly treads through snowy exteriors. Cast and crew committed to doing real work on both sides of the lens, and it pays off by providing a terrific, almost tangible texture of realism.
This air of authenticity making exposition endearing extends to characterizations. “Knuckleball” takes some time to get going, although those minutes are well spent witnessing both the spoken and unspoken dynamics of Henry and Jacob’s curious relationship.
Another early moment sees Jacob teaching Henry how to pitch a baseball. While physically manipulating the boy’s body, Jacob instructs, “now with this hand, I want you to come right over the top with this. Look at me, look at me. Come right over the top and finish as that leg goes down, okay?”
It certainly may have been written exactly as it is said. But the way Michael Ironside injects “look at me, look at me” suggests the venerable veteran added intonations to make the dialogue more lived-in. Ironside’s offhanded finessing adds major nuance through minor tics to create chemistry in which Henry and Jacob genuinely read as real.
Young actor Luca Villacis more than holds his own using true performance techniques too. Director Michael Peterson doesn’t rely on his script with co-writer Kevin Cockle to deliver every piece of information. Lingering looks, subtle movements, and casual cuts to expressive reactions flesh out Henry’s family without words, deepening mysterious motivations by gradually unfolding the story.
Even in its brevity, Ironside gives one of the more earnestly invested performances of the latter part of his long career. Villacis’ revelatory presence marks him as one to watch in the future. However, Munro Chambers stakes his own claim for MVP as the equally razor-sharp third point on the lead actor triangle.
Playing Jacob’s odd neighbor Dixon, Chambers expertly erases mental images of his “Degrassi” high-schooler and “Turbo Kid” teen personas with a great turn as a cryptic creep. Chambers comes close to zombie-walking into occasional cartoonishness, but Peterson only allows him to indulge in vamping behavior while it’s still enticingly entertaining. Directing then dials him back toward grounded grimness that takes Dixon above stereotyping into unsettling intensity. Munro Chambers’ range evolves exponentially in front of our eyes over the course of this one individual arc.
So much of “Knuckleball’s” personality comes from almost imperceptible details. Like Ironside’s inflections, small flourishes such as stains on Dixon’s suspenders deepen background bits without bogging down the main fiction’s flow.
Regarding details, there purposefully aren’t many herein related to the story’s specifics. “Knuckleball” is definitely a movie best experienced with as little foreknowledge as possible.
To tighten its tension, “Knuckleball” wouldn’t be wrong to remove or replace regular interludes reminding us that several secondary characters remain waylaid for one reason or another. What these people are up to rarely warrants a second thought, and detracts more than enhances the primary plot. Something also feels missing from a brusque ending with unaddressed resolutions bouncing weirdly off the runway.
At this point though, I’m calling out hangnails rendered largely inconsequential by captivating intrigue. “Knuckleball’s” story sizzles in its simplicity, and its delivery burns with spellbinding smolder punctuated by a blowout finale.
Extinguish irrelevant “Home Alone” comparisons from any expectations. Excellent acting and excellent atmosphere sustain “Knuckleball” as an exemplary standout among impressive indie thrillers.
Review Score: 80