Calm with Horses (2019) Review

Calm with Horses (2019)
Director: Nick Rowland
Screenwriter: Joe Murtagh
Starring: Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, David Wilmot, Ned Dennehy, Anthony Welsh, Liam Carney, Kiljan Moroney

Very reminiscent of the early work of Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace), Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher) and John Michael McDonagh (The Guard), but with a voice entirely its own, Calm with Horses hits you like a haymaker. Opportunities to experience 2020 cinema may be limited for now, but incredible indies are still out there to enjoy, and after debuting at a number of film festivals Calm with Horses is now available to stream across the UK and Ireland.

Retired boxer Douglas “Arm” Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) has to balance a life as an enforcer for the Devers, a family of rural Irish gangsters, with supporting his ex-partner Ursula (Niamh Algar) and their autistic son Jack (Kiljan Moroney). Arm is set to be tested by his employers and will have to question his morals and priorities in life as his choices are brought into stark relief.

The film opens with a startlingly brutal sight; Arm making a visit to an acquaintance, who he proceeds to beat within an inch of his life, the victim not seeming surprised or willing to even attempt to defend himself, the sequence punctuated with shuddering jump cuts. This is Fannigan (Liam Carney), who has made the grave mistake of attempting to rape the youngest member of the Dever clan while drunk at a house party. Fannigan will prove to be a key figure in Arm’s future with the Devers.

Cosmo Jarvis’ central performance is painfully conflicted and provides the film with its anchor. A blunt instrument with a gentle heart, we see the real, playful and affectionate Arm when he spends some quality time with Jack, as challenging as the boy’s behavior is (especially in unfamiliar environments with too much sensory stimulation). Niamh Algar gives as good as she gets as Arm’s ex Ursula, seeing right through his front as an emotionless instrument of organised crime. She gets the line of the film when over lunch she observes “You remind me of yourself sometimes. I miss you”. Arm once had potential, drive and a future but was forced into another lifestyle by tragic circumstance, and Ursula remembers the man he once was, presumably the man she fell in love and had a child with, a man she hopes may one day return.

Arm is a good man exploited by those who know exactly which of his buttons to press. Following a similar role in The Guard, David Wilmot effortlessly slips into the role of another imposing gangster, Hector Dever, the brains of their operation, but Ned Dennehy as his psychotic brother Paudi makes him look positively cuddly in comparison. What is more surprising is how well Barry Keoghan convinces as a wannabe hard-man Dymphna, the heir apparent of the Dever clan. He throws his family name around town, knowing full well nobody can touch him, and if they do, Arm will be the least of their worries. He is Arm’s friend going way back but has been manipulating him for his own ends for years. Whether peer pressuring Arm to indulge in cocaine with him or flatly ignoring his friend’s plea to be allowed to drop Jack off with family before embarking on their latest shady mission, Dymphna may well be the most despicable, irredeemable character in the film.

Arm is in a self-destructive tailspin. Previously with so much promise as an athlete, he has ended up doing bad things for bad people, even if he does them for the right reasons – to support his estranged family. His innocence at doing what he’s told without question takes a steadily darker turn as his actions progress from stealing a TV from a victim to give to his son as a sign of his love, to those that inadvertently bring his family directly into harm’s way. Arm is down a rabbit hole with little hope of escape.

The film looks stunning throughout, the vast expanse of verdant Irish countryside captured by Piers McGrail’s camera proving itself a deceptively beautiful stage for crime and family strife. The film is also awash with Benjamin John Power’s atmospheric and moody electronic score, enriching and heightening every fraught emotion brought to the screen.

Calm with Horses hits hard and leaves you reeling, and the craft on display is superb, especially for a feature debut. But it is the connection you feel with a group of compellingly flawed characters that stays with you. With everything gong on in Arm’s life, his family never far from his mind and his future now so uncertain, how many of us would do any different than he does to ensure his son is provided for?

21/24

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