Ever wondered what the 1990 classic Home Alone would’ve been like if it weren’t a kids’ movie? That seems to be the starting point for director Michael Peterson’s thriller Knuckleball, which sees a clever 12-year-old stave off the murderous advances of an adversary. However, in honor of its namesake baseball pitch, Knuckleball drops a surprise right at the end that’s more Children of the Corn than Matilda. Coming off a run at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival, Knuckleball is aiming to hit select theaters, VOD services, and digital devices with a home run on October 5, 2018, but for all of its surprises, it’s more of a triple.
Peterson and co-writer Kevin Cockle manage to cram a great deal of mythos into a film with a fairly straight-forward premise and a tight 90-minute runtime. With relative ease, they establish that our hero Henry (Lucas Villacis) is intelligent, athletic, and incredibly capable, that his grandfather Jacob (Michael Ironside) is a gruff man capable of softness, and that their family is troubled by a dark secret. When Knuckleball is focused on these aspects of the story, it offers up genuine laughs through the slapstick abuse Henry unloads on his attacker while simultaneously managing genuine thrills at its most horrible. There’s something deeply sinister about the goings-on around Jacob’s farm – an aspect heightened by the arrival of Dixon (Munro Chambers), Jacob’s neighbor – and it’s that mystery which makes Knuckleball fun, even despite so many aspects of the revelation being heavily foreshadowed via gratuitous exposition.
When Knuckleball manages a balance, all the pieces work and the experience feels exhilarating. As soon as the action shifts onto Henry’s parents, the whole of Knuckleball stalls out in the most frustrating way possible. Jacob’s daughter Mary (Kathleen Munroe) has her own journey which offers several key elements to understanding the mythos Peterson and Cockle created. Not enough answers are given to fully explain everything, but what we get comes largely from Mary filling in gaps that her husband Paul (Chenier Hundal) doesn’t know about her family. The secrets, while not mundane, are revelatory only to the audience, not to Henry. Confused, frightened, and literally fighting for his life, Henry’s given enough information to cobble together a general sense of why he gets targeted. If Mary and Peter were relegated to the worried absent parent category, similar to Catherine O’Hara’s portrayal of Kate McCallister desperate to get home to Kevin, then the focus on the parents would flow naturally with the rest of the story. Unfortunately, not only are the parents used as an opportunity for an info dump, their appearance rarely do anything more than put a pin in the action when the action is exactly where the audience wants to be. This doesn’t serve to delay gratification or offer a respite from the terror, but serves as just an off-putting interruption.
While Knuckleball may suffer from some narrative flow issues, it’s all forgivable given the wonderful direction and performances. Peterson’s wonderful opening sequence is both playful and ominous. As the credits appear and disappear, a transmission glitch audibly rings with each new name or title and a sweet country tune plays over an establishing shot of Henry’s family in the lone car driving down a snow-covered road. The further down the road they get, the more the camera pulls back, the snow-filled wasteland around them growing ever larger. You can almost feel the icy cold of the oncoming storm radiating out of film. If that weren’t enough, later, when Henry heads to Dixon’s for help, the ice-covered branches of every tree bend, snap, and crash around Henry, making even a simple walk through the woods perilous. Add in no landline at Jacob’s house, and Knuckleball’s ready to offer up a truly isolating experience.
But to make a film like Knuckleball work, you need a lead who can carry the weight, which Luca does with ease. Walking the line between wise and wise-ass, Villacis plays Henry as a kid who can handle himself in stressful situations, but who is also still just a kid. Henry’s not fighting off the Wet Bandits in some PG kid’s flick, he’s in a fight for his life and he acts like it. Ironside has less to do than you’d expect given his role, but it’s not his acting that stands out; rather, it’s his natural gravitas that makes Jacob seem like a man not to be crossed, even when he’s cooking dinner. Conversely, Chambers brings no gravitas to Dixon, which is exactly what the character must emanate as the creepy, off-putting neighbor. Chambers looks to be having incredible fun as Dixon when his intentions are cryptic and more fun when they are crystal clear. Munroe and Hundal are given the least to work with as the expository devices, though, as the one with more to do, Munroe makes the larger impression.
In the end, Knuckleball finds interesting and clever ways to raise the stakes at near every turn while managing to keep things grounded in reality. There are no great saves or any supernatural creatures, just old-fashioned human monsters on the prowl. What they seek is Henry, but the why is the concerning aspect. It’s the why that’ll keep you guessing and it’s the why that’ll keep you invested. Mileage may vary on the payoff, but Knuckleball won’t leave you in the dirt.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.