"The relentless tension of the film is fuelled by unpredictable people and their erratic, often violent, behaviour."
Nick Rowland’s debut feature Calm With Horses is a film about family, loyalty, identity and the choices people make to fulfil others’ expectations of them. We follow Douglas “Arm” Armstrong, an ex-boxer turned amateur criminal within a scrappy family of drug peddlers in rural Ireland. He is a man of conflicting responsibilities and the story focuses on his confusion over who he wants to be: Douglas the loving, reliable partner and father, or Arm the gangster lapdog.
“Don’t go thinking all violence is the work of hateful men,” Arm instructs us in his opening narration.
Cosmo Jarvis is virtually unrecognisable from his previous turn in 2016’s Lady Macbeth; as Arm, he has built himself into an imposing, hulking beast of a man. Arm is tough and kind but easily manipulated, and the film wouldn’t be so successful if it weren’t for Jarvis’ subtle portrayal of his simmering frustrations, deep regrets, potential for love, and his extreme internal conflict.
"The Devers are toxic masculinity writ large, and this is a world where there’s always a bigger fish, someone else to be afraid of."
Niamh Algar gives a confident and sympathetic performance as Ursula - a young woman desperate to escape to a better life for her and her son, away from the tiny coastal town where there’s nothing better to do than take drugs and gossip.
Barry Keogan (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) is once again superb. He brings such menace; he’s the smaller man, but Arm is intimidated by him. However, he’s still seen as ‘soft’ by the old guard, with his bleached hair and lack of a kill count. The Devers are toxic masculinity writ large, and this is a world where there’s always a bigger fish, someone else to be afraid of.
Director Rowland and writer Joseph Murtagh draw us into the intimacy amongst chosen family, especially within a small community bound by both loyalty and fear. Our characters are backed into corners, made to do things they don’t want to do, with a few desperately breaking for freedom with varying levels of success.
Contrasts of colour create the oppression of small front rooms crammed with people - the girls always squashed together on the couch watching TV - and nightclubs where everyone knows everyone (and everyone knows who to watch out for), and the wide, wild coastal landscapes that give some hope of escape but also highlight how isolated our characters are. Rapid edits break up some of the violence, while lingering close-ups hold us in the film’s more tender moments. There’s also a strong use of music and sound design to punctuate the action and give further insight into the mental states of the more volatile characters.
"I can’t get it out of my head."
The relentless tension of the film is fuelled by unpredictable people and their erratic, often violent, behaviour. But there are laughs here too and moments of relief where the tension does finally break. Arm and his boss/best mate make an enthralling duo, whether they’re brawling in a bar over some imagined slight or discussing the intricacies of Perry Mason versus Ironside while coked-up to their eyeballs. Much of the film’s levity comes from that ‘old Irish charm’. There’s also an excellent car chase.
Calm With Horses is deeply compelling and, for a film the themes of which could have easily tipped over into misery-porn territory, it’s extremely watchable. I found the whole thing very moving and basically I can’t get it out of my head.