Director: Nick Rowland
Writer: Joe Murtagh
Starring: Barry Keoghan, Cosmo Jarvis, David Wilmot
In rural Ireland ex-boxer Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong (Jarvis) is the enforcer for the drug-dealing Devers family, who also tries to be a good father to his autistic five-year-old son. However, when Arm is asked to kill for the first time his loyalty is put to the ultimate test, with devastating consequences for all involved.
In this current world we are thankfully able to discuss more openly than ever before so many issues regarding race, sexuality and gender to name a few, and one of them is the idea that masculinity can involve showing actual emotions. Calm with Horses is certainly a film that effectively explores the ideas of the conflicting ideals of tortured masculinity, and so for such a film to work requires a great central performance, and thankfully Cosmo Jarvis delivers a towering central performance of physicality and emotion that is reminiscent of one of my favourite current actors Matthias Schoenaerts. His character of ‘Arm’ is one that manages to capture physicality but extreme emotional vulnerability through sheer expression and body language, and thanks to this and the skilful storytelling we cannot help but be completely immersed in the unforgiving and brutal world that our protagonist finds himself part of due to sheer circumstance and bad luck.
Arn is referred to by Barry Keoghan’s Dympna as ‘bro’, but yet he summons him with whistles or gestures as if he were simply an obedient dog. Arm was a very talented boxer, but after a tragic accident in which he killed an opponent, his only skill is his sheer strength, and so he has been left with no choice but to basically provide the muscle and the violence for Dympna, who is trying to exert himself as a dominant force in the local gangster scene after the death of his father. Meanwhile Arm is trying to provide for his estranged autistic son, of which the mother harbours deep guilt as she took a lot of drugs while pregnant. All characters within the film do have deep emotional baggage, and it provides a film of extreme emotional heft throughout.
The main narrative is actually extremely simple, but this proves to be a good thing as it allows for the story to just focus on its protagonist and the deep internal conflicts that he experiences. Thanks to Cosmo Jarvis’ incredibly physical performance he manages to convince as a man of great physical strength, but also a man of actual extreme emotional vulnerability we cannot help but deeply care about our protagonist as he is a genuinely good man caught up in a world filled with bad people, and so he is inevitably tasked with doing the bidding of bad people. As things escalate out of control director Nick Rowland and writer Joe Murtagh keep a very strict and tight control over their film and the sole focus is on the protagonist, and even a seemingly random car chase is extremely tense due to the fact that we are so deeply invested in the protagonist and his story.
Calm with Horses is also a wonderfully cinematic film; the narrative itself very much resembles that of a western, but so do the bleak, widescreen visuals of the remote Irish town that the characters live in. The cinematography of the exterior locations is often very stark, while the film’s few fleeting moments of tranquillity often feature far warmer colours and lens flares. What also enhances the film’s dark and merciless mood is the extremely evocative score by Blanck Mass, that often genuinely captures the bleak, unforgiving and ultimately inescapable world that the film’s characters find themselves a part of. As the plot arrives to its conclusion, certain elements may well feel inevitable, but because we find ourselves so deeply invested in the main protagonist we cannot help but feel deeply involved, which leads to an unforgettable and emotionally devastating conclusion.
A deeply gripping and emotionally engaging modern-day Western; Calm with Horses is an often harrowing but utterly compelling story of tortured masculinity and vulnerability that grips until the very end.
At time of writing Calm with Horses is available to stream on various platforms