As passionate a fan as I am of crime cinema, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that brave and original offerings are few and far between in this day age, in terms of efficient marketing if nothing else. While the past couple of decades have graced us with lauded, poetic sagas from mainland Europe such as A Prophet, Bullhead and the truly leftfield 2014 Ukrainian drama The Tribe, the once-plentiful Transatlantic well of crime-oriented film has run all but dry. Yes, yes, I’m aware that individuals like Dennis Lehane, Shane Meadows and Nicolas Winding Refn have produced some remarkable character studies contained within an underworld milieu, but, for the most part, widely propagated gangland flicks appear to be tailormade for a Scorsese/Ritchie/Tarantino imitation checklist. But we shouldn’t fear, writers & directors who still care about making mature, complex cinema about the wider ramifications of a life of crime are legion, it’s just a matter of them being lucky enough to make a sufficient noise in a midst of ever-worsening cockney accents, cheeky ‘nutters’, and tropes-galore scripts. I’d probably be happy with legislation that curbed the production of unintentionally hilarious Essex-based tales of Land Rovers & morons, as fascistic as that might sound. In lieu of that, we have yet another pleasant surprise in the form of Nick Rowland’s directorial debut Calm With Horses, an intimate and frightening examination of fatherhood, family values, evil and integrity on Ireland’s west coast.
Superb up-and-comer Cosmo Jarvis stars as Douglas Armstrong, chiefly addressed as ‘Arm’ by friends and acquaintances. Once a proud and talented boxer who represented his home county in tournaments, the none-too-bright and seemingly punch-drunk Arm threw it all away for a career that appears to be more in sync with his violent and troubled past, working as an enforcer for notorious local crime family The Devers. Arm also has a heavily autistic five-year-old son, Jack (Kiljan Moroney), from a previous relationship with the feisty and protective Ursula (Niamh Algar), and in spite of what he presents as an earnest desire to be a good father and remain on amicable terms with his estranged partner, his poor emotional regulation and proclivity for being easily-led throw a constantly painful spanner in the works.
The Devers, the aforementioned clan who provide Arm with a livelihood are, to put it mildly, not particularly pleasant people. Under the thumb of unnervingly ferocious and unstable patriarch Paudi (Ned Dennehy of Tyrannosaur & Peaky Blinders fame), this brood of drug dealers are widely known for their vicious and unpredictable reputation maintenance and barbaric retribution upon anybody foolish enough to cross them. Paudi’s word is law, a fact reiterated by his ostensibly more respectable younger brother and lieutenant Hector (David Wilmot), and orders are predominantly passed down the chain of command to their nephew Dympna (the brilliant Barry Keoghan). A thoroughly nasty little shit, Dympna acts as Arm’s handler, giving him tasks and supervising him to ensure their execution, all the while alternating between manipulation and outright bullying whenever the latter voices reservations. Arm may not be the sharpest tool in the box, but he’s canny enough to know that the Devers family are not ones to upset, and so he tolerates Dympna slapping him around the head and clicking and whistling as if he were commanding a dog (from a certain perspective, you could present that as the case), but he also reveals his sad gullibility in trusting Dympna’s insidiously disingenuous assertions that the two are essentially brothers. ”Blood only means you’re related; Loyalty is what makes you truly part of a family”.
Arm’s latest assignment is fairly straightforward: One of the female Devers has been molested by a family friend, and Arm is to get ahold of the culprit and batter him to a bloody pulp. It gets unenviably more complicated when the family announce that they aren’t satisfied with this resolution, and only the pervert’s death will restore the balance. With a fresh murder contract in his hands, Arm’s stress is further compounded when Ursula informs him that she has a found an appropriate special needs school for Jack, and it will involve their relocating to another part of the country. Faced with the prospects of taking another’s life and losing contact with the only real family that he’s ever had, Arm scrambles to find a comprehensive solution to his troubles, unwittingly setting off a surprising and devastating chain of events in the process.
In his first proper leading role, Cosmo Jarvis is a revelation as Arm. Adopting a gruffly authentic and laconic Irish brogue, Jarvis’ hulking presence and reserved demeanour betray a mess of insecurities and credulity, a somewhat tragic highlight of the fact that, while Arm accepts money to dole out savage physical punishment and allows heartless types to get in his ear, he is a fundamentally decent man, tormented by past mistakes and current predicaments. ‘You’re not like them, Arm’ is a sentiment that is repeated by several characters throughout the piece, and in his heart, he knows it to be true. His profound love for his child and former girlfriend, coupled with his perpetual state of unease in the presence of his ghastly employers, convey a personality who is worryingly out of his depth, despite the fact that he can physically handle himself with little trouble. He brashly traded in a potentially more pleasant and docile existence to walk amongst the monsters, something that becomes painfully more obvious to him as darker developments ensue.
The backbone of the film’s doomed and stressful atmosphere is manifested with particular brilliance in the Devers family. As the utterly psychotic boss Paudi, Ned Dennehy brings an almost demonic presence to the film with his dishevelled appearance, bloodshot eyes and hair-triggered variation between silently leering and cackling inhumanly, but it remains terrifyingly grounded in reality at all times. His brother Hector has plotted himself up with a wealthy widow and fancies himself as the outwardly business-oriented face of the family, yet remains just as callously nonchalant about their nefarious exploits. The mercilessness of both men is embodied in emissary fashion in nephew Dympna, whilst not necessarily being replicated. He is a bilious, nasty and selfish young man, but even Dympna displays some level of apprehension and horror in reaction to the extreme lengths that his uncles are prepared to go to in order to maintain face and keep business running smoothly.
The film is certainly replete with extremely uncomfortable, disturbing, tense and depressing sequences, but it achieves a strangely excellent balance in scenes of serene and touching interaction between Arm, Jack and Ursula. Bolstered by Benjamin John Power’s dreamy electronic score, these moments of domestic quasi-bliss are highly believable and moving, powerfully cementing the fact that Arm has better options for himself in life if he would just get away from the Devers and start believing in his capacity for work beyond hired thuggery. While it never slips into anything resembling a comedic tone, the film also features many authentic moments of levity, mostly taking the form of highly intoxicated conversations between Arm, Dympna and other more gormless characters as they babble in a dryly amusing way that endearingly sends up some more stereotypical aspects of Irish behaviour. There is some strangely deadpan delivery with ‘fecks’ and ‘shoites’ thrown in for good measure, but it is ultimately a fitting and humanising aspect of the picture, never devolving into parody or facetiousness.
By turns beautiful and sad, warm and menacing, amusing and suspenseful, Calm With Horses is a highly impressive debut feature, its themes of fractured masculinity, attempting a turnaround and one-against-the-mob echoing more thoughtful crime-laden fare such as You Were Never Really Here and (my personal apex for this kind of tale) Michael Mann’s Thief. Not that you’ll necessarily find much stylistic crossover with those films, but the fear for what the protagonist holds precious in life and the palpable dread in the form of the Devers’ herd tyranny is there in spades. It’s a familiar tale, but a sharp script, powerful performances and solid pathos coalesce into a film that you won’t forget in a hurry. A thumbs up from me.