Imagine if Home Alone was rated R, the folks breaking in were psychopathic killers, and Kevin McCallister was maybe a bit of a psychopath himself, and you’re on the right track of what to expect from the lean, mean Canadian thriller Knuckleball. It’s a little reductive as a description, sure, but its an effective shorthand for the survival thriller from director Michael Peterson, which follows a young boy through a brutal fight for survival against the psycho killer next door.
Henry (Channel Zero‘s Luca Villacis) isn’t too pleased about spending the weekend with his grandfather, Jacob (Michael Ironside). The two aren’t close, and far from a beacon of paternal warmth, grandpa is a cantankerous, codgy tough guy who lives out in the sticks. With a snow storm on the horizon and his phone charger forgotten at home, Henry’s about to be locked in with a grumpy old dude for days, and he’s openly perturbed about it. And his mom isn’t that stoked on it either. Dropping Henry off, she confesses memories of her mother’s suicide to her husband, a dark secret she kept to herself all these years. Suffice it to say, something is rotten in Denmark (or the snowy wilds of Canada, as it were), and that’s before the creepy as hell neighbor, Dixon (Munro Chambers) makes his presence known.
It’s not too long before Henry realizes he’s actually taken a liking to his curmudgeonly grandfather, the traditionally masculine “rub some dirt on it” type, who admires his grandson’s smarts and tenacity and shares some old school wisdom of his own when he teaches the young boy to throw a ball. Ironside nails the balance in Jacob — a mix of grandfatherly affection and the gruff no-nonsense machismo of generation’s past — and it’s too easy to start to love him yourself… until the old man croaks suddenly in the night, leaving Henry with no one to turn to but skeezy neighbor Dixon, who wastes no time getting real murdery on the kid.
Chambers is suitably creepy as Dixon, conveying a mix of wounded dog hostility and downright disgusting predatory tics, but the film hinges on Villacis, who’s got to be one of the most believable little badasses in film. Kevin Cockle and Michael Peterson’s script sets the stage well, making Henry smart without being a smart-ass and allowing him to be incredibly competent without straining the boundaries of credulity. He realizes he’s in deep shit quickly and he wastes no time setting traps (a skill not-so-subtly established early on) to save his skin. Villacis plays it straight, no winking at the audience, and he’s one tough little nugget of preternatural violence who’s genuinely fun to root for, with an almost world-weary quality that somehow doesn’t just seem like brattiness.
The downside is that Knuckleball takes too much time setting the stage for the action, and when the killer thrills finally do arrive, the film never finds anything particularly original to do with them. Third act beats, intended to be critical revelations, are far too easy to predict — some feel so transparent you’d wonder if they were intentionally telegraphed if they didn’t land with such a thud. The script takes pains to make sure Knuckleball isn’t just a surface level survival thriller, but a tale of family dysfunction and generational violence, which gives the film more heart than expected, but it also drags some of the action down into the muck of predictable melodrama.
Fortunately, Knuckleball functions well enough on a visceral level that the familiar drama beats and thriller tropes aren’t enough to undermine the impact. It may be predictable, but there’s also power in the film’s simplicity. It’s a straightforward force of wintry ice cold survivalism, and it brings a chill in with it. Knuckleball isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel, and it doesn’t have to because you know what? Wheels work great. So do old-fashioned, well-constructed thrillers, and if you’re looking for a film to get the blood pumping, Knuckleball will get the job done.