Irish crime cinema is a tricky genre to define. Technically, every film featuring the IRA is a crime film. When you think of less political Irish yarns, what usually comes to mind are movies that lean towards the blackly comic: Paddy Breathnach's 'I Went Down', for example, or even Martin McDonagh's 'In Bruges'. Nick Rowland's debut feature 'Calm with Horses' doesn't feature the IRA or much in the way of laughs, but feels all the more authentic for it.
'Calm with Horses' revolves around ex-boxer Douglas Armstrong (a bullnecked Cosmo Jarvis, 'Lady Macbeth', 'Annihilation'), nicknamed Arm, who is an enforcer for the Devers, a scuzzy criminal family. Shaven-headed and stacked with muscle, his knuckles permanently bruised from fighting, Arm is there to administer beatings to anyone who steps out of line.
When 13-year-old Charlie Dever (Hazel Doupe) is molested by a family friend, Fannigan (Liam Carney), at a debauched house party, Arm and Paudi's weaselly nephew Dympna (the always excellent Barry Keoghan, 'American Animals', 'Black '47') exact brutal retribution on him. Dympna is Arm's friend but mostly acts as his handler, initiating fights that his human attack dog will finish and shovelling cocaine up the big man's nose to coerce him into greater acts of violence.
Arm's only other loyalty is to his autistic five-year-old son Jack and his ex-girlfriend Ursula (an impressive Niamh Algar, HBO Max's 'Raised by Wolves'). An early scene sees Arm, operating on some kind of caveman instinct, bringing them a stolen plasma TV after beating up its owner. He begins to accompany Jack on his visits to a farm, where the boy interacts with horses as a form of therapy. But when Ursula begins dating nice guy Rob (Anthony Welsh), Arm quickly finds himself in an emotional tailspin.
Torn between two allegiances, Douglas begins to question the hold the Devers have over him. Meanwhile, Dympna's vulpine older uncles, Jack (Kiljan Moroney) and Paudi (Ned Dennehy, 'Guns Akimbo'), demand that blood must be paid. They want Arm and Dympna to finish the job and kill Fannigan in order to save the Devers' street cred. Arm's reluctance to complete this mission sets the damaged young man on a path to achieve redemption.
Adapted from a short story in Colin Barrett's 'Young Skins', Rowland's 'Calm with Horses' threads two genres - the crime thriller and family drama - seamlessly. The film bears some similarities to the recent stylish crime stories 'Bullhead' (a hugely muscled-up lead with a troubled past), 'Dogman' (the Chester and Spike-style interplay between a hulking thug and his diminutive companion), 'Bronson' (in that it's essentially a character study, driven by a volatile lead performance) and 'Animal Kingdom' (a macho world in which everyone's watching everyone else, trying to suss out weakness). Like these films, the charm of 'Calm with Horses' lies in it's compellingly human scale.
The exemplary cinematography of Piers McGrail favours the kind of intimacy that lets us see the thoughts trickling through the sieve of Arm's addled brain and the pain seeping out of his taunt skin.
There's a level of technical polish that elevates a lean story. The sound design bleeds into a satisfyingly textured score by Blanck Mass, whose work here recalls Cristobal Tapia de Veer's paranoid, glitchy, twitchy music for BBC4's 'Utopia'. The exemplary cinematography of Piers McGrail favours the kind of intimacy that lets us see the thoughts trickling through the sieve of Arm's addled brain and the pain seeping out of his taunt skin. There is a keen eye for picturesque detail, particularly in the town in which the drama plays out - a seemingly isolated village surrounded by an emerald rolling countryside which turns into a sunny beach, transforming into a playground filled with life.
'Calm with Horses' features a breakout performance from Cosmo Jarvis. Arm is likeable but befuddled and unable to control his temper, which both isolates him from his son and allows the Devers to manipulate him. We never find out why Arm is the way he is, although you can assume it all stems from the damage he took (and delivered) in the ring. Rowland shies away from a too-easy bid for audience sympathy with his self-destructive protagonist. In spite of the frustration you feel for him, there is enough beyond his fists to keep you rooting for him.
'Calm with Horses' is definitely engrossing and heavy shit. There's some savage inner violence going on within the main character; the barbarity on the screen can't match the turmoil that's going on in his head. It's a strikingly accomplished portrait of a broken soul hauling himself back up from rock bottom.