Film Review: Calm with Horses

Reviewer: Dave Cunningham

Writer: Joe Murtagh from a novella by Colin Barrett

Director: Nick Rowland

Film producers tend to use rural settings as backgrounds for gothic or horror stories such as the building of Wicker Men or holding cult rituals. Director Nick Rowland, however, uses a coastal Irish community as a windswept backing for a noir tale of minor gangsters.

There is a tribal aspect to Calm with Horses. Disgraced former boxer Arm (Cosmo Jarvis) is alienated from former girlfriend Ursula (Niamh Algar) and their autistic son Jack (Kiljan Tyr Moroney) who is only ever calm when in the presence of horses. Arm finds a proxy family – the Devers clan, a dismal multigenerational pack of drug dealers and petty thugs, who allow him to live with them on condition Arm acts as an enforcer administering beatings to their rivals. When Arm refuses to fulfil one of the family’s demands, he finds the clan are not tolerant of dissent.

Director Nick Rowland takes a brutal confrontational approach that drags the audience unwillingly into the conflict. Scenes are in intense close-up or filmed from the subjective viewpoint of a character. It creates an oppressive mood of barely-repressed violence as if the characters are shouting right in your face. A car chase down a bumpy country road has the effect of inducing motion sickness.

The atmosphere is relentlessly bleak. The few panoramic views of the coastal landscape serve to emphasise its unforgiving harshness and the sun never seems to shine from behind the gloomy clouds. The home life of the Devers clan is squalid – siblings squeezed onto a sofa, endlessly drinking cheap booze and smoking. It makes you wonder how low Arm has sunk to tolerate such a vile group. The relationship between Arm and his supposed friend Dympna (Barry Keoghan) is the reverse of Lennie and George in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Keoghan is a revolting character, exploiting Arm as a means of intimidating other people and using drugs to keep him compliant.

There is a terrifying lack of passion in Calm with Horses; the acts of violence are cruel and pointless never achieving cathartic release. Efforts to help turn out to be futile; Arm steals a television that is no use to his son who suffers a fit due to the flickering images.

Cosmo Jarvis creates a character who feels he does not deserve redemption. The extent to which Arm has been atoning for his past actions become clear when it is pointed out he was just a boy when he committed the act that resulted in being banned from boxing. ‘’So was he’’, comes the grim reply. Animalistic terms are constantly used to describe Arm who is likened to a loyal but dim dog. However, Jarvis suggests a deeply flawed but very human character, someone who is incapable of trusting himself to make the right choices and defers to anyone who seems to offer sympathy. It is a disturbing portrayal of a life wasted.

As bleak as the rural landscape Calm with Horses is a hard film to watch for all the right reasons.

Released on 13 March 2020

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