Calm With Horses, 2019.
Directed by Nick Rowland.
Starring Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, David Wilmot and Anthony Welsh.
The enforcer for an Irish criminal family is torn between his loyalty to his bosses and his increasingly complex personal life.
There’s something deeply depressing about grey, rural towns in the UK and Ireland. In the summer, they can look idyllic and quaint but, whenever the sun isn’t shining, they exist under a cloud of hopelessness, particularly for their younger inhabitants. That’s certainly the case with director Nick Rowland’s impressive feature debut Calm With Horses – a movie that exists in a world that wouldn’t know what to do with hope if it had any. It’s that undercurrent of sadness, though, that gives the story its power.
Cosmo Jarvis, last seen by many alongside Florence Pugh in the terrific Lady Macbeth, delivers a breakthrough performance of extraordinary, quiet power as Douglas. He’s a former boxer and now a violent enforcer for the ruthless Devers clan, known as “Arm” for his abilities with his fists. Arm is constantly egged on to increasingly bloodthirsty acts by the loose cannon Devers teen Dympna (Barry Keoghan). His increasing connection with the family comes as his ex-partner Ursula (Niamh Algar) is contemplating moving out of the area, and taking their child with her.
Calm With Horses opens with a portentous voice-over in which Arm dishes out heavy-handed back story (“I’m told I was a violent child… usually to myself”) and discusses how he was effectively adopted into the Devers family out of appreciation for his loyalty. We meet him dishing out an unflinching beating to an old fella who is accused of trying to get into bed with a 14-year-old-girl. Once the blood-soaked stage has been set, though, Rowland changes gear for a film that reveals a bold, bleak vision of a cycle of violence, while delivering flashes of stark emotional warmth.
Much of that warmth comes in the unusual bond between Jarvis and Algar. The reasons for the rupture in their relationship are clear – he doesn’t seem to understand their son’s autism – but the two performers provide enough nuance and chemistry that we believe they were once in love. Their bond allows for an unusually comic scene in which Arm tries to ride the horse his son uses for therapy sessions, with both actors conveying a moment of quiet humanity amid the escalating stakes of the violent underworld politics at play – represented largely by Keoghan’s coiled spring of a performance.
Rowland’s movie occasionally has an issue with dropping into the expected groove of a gritty, grubby drama. The final moments, in particular, devolve slightly into a sort of woozy schmaltz that is refreshingly absent elsewhere. However, the occasional descent into cliché never eclipses the impressive grasp of style and tone elsewhere in the movie. This particularly comes through in the violence, which Rowland helms with an unflinching eye and thudding, crunchy sound design.
Calm With Horses is interested principally in the tangled, circular trap that a violent, criminal life becomes. It’s a movie about a man who has become ensnared within the tendrils of escalating chaos – a prisoner of his own loyalty. When Rowland focuses on this strange conundrum, there’s a quasi-tragic sense of inevitability to the movie that lends it real power. This is an assured and intriguing debut feature that suggests there’s plenty more to come from Rowland. I’ll be first in line to see what he does next.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.