Director: Nick Rowland | 1h 40mins | Drama
A young retired boxer keeps his head above water by acting as a brutal enforcer for a local crime family in rural Ireland, all whilst trying to balance his relationship with his son.
Calm With Horses is the directorial feature film debut from Nick Rowland (known for superb shorts such as 2014’s BAFTA nominated Slap), adapted by Joe Murtagh from one of the short stories in Young Skins by Colin Barrett. Though well adapted, the Irish setting is amplified through the strong direction and – more importantly – the excellent performances by the entire cast, pulling their surrounding into a character of its own The fields, farms and small town almost imprison them in the wide open spaces, rendering them unable to leave the unfortunate reality they find themselves in.
Cosmo Jarvis as the aforementioned ex-boxer Arm carries the film throughout, featuring in almost every scene. We open on narration from Jarvis talking loosely about the violence he is about to inflict – a beating of suspected paedophile Fannigan (Liam Carney). His slight reluctance and the suggestion of why someone would commit an act of violence is the perfect way to introduce us to the character, and let us know the conflict he’s already going through. There was something that happened in Arm’s past as a boxer that caused him to retire early, we aren’t let in on this later on but it furthers the internal struggle.
His role as an enforcer is for the drug running family for the Devers, and a sort of right hand man for Dympna (Barry Keoghan), one of the leads. Above him, the terrifying Paudi (Ned Dennehy) runs the family with a brutal fist and becomes clear that a vicious beating isn’t nearly enough, that Fannigan needs to be made an example of. It’s apparent that Arm isn’t comfortable around any of the Devers except Dympna, whose treatment seems kind at first but in reality is far more like the dogs they keep on the family farm than the old friend he actually is.
This is constantly juxtaposed against his actual family, Kiljan Tyr Moroney as his son Jack, and Niamh Algar as Ursula, Arm’s ex-partner and Jack’s mother. There’s resentment between the parents, especially from Ursula’s side as she desperately doesn’t want Jack involved in this low level criminal life, but Arm isn’t willing to give up his fatherly responsibilities, even if he struggles with Jack’s nonverbal autism. It adds an unexpected layer to the film, Arm is clumsy and poor at understanding what Jack’s needs are but does slowly starts to understand on some level, even if he makes plenty of mistakes elsewhere.
The cycle of broken promises mixed with his toxic masculinity can be broken – but not that it has been yet.
The name Calm With Horses comes from the equine therapy Jack undergoes to help relax him. Though it’s not officially therapy, it’s the only way he is able to calm and relax, a fact Arm learns as he spends more time with Jack, and even a notion he sees experiences when he takes a short ride for himself. It’s a turning point for Arm, as it starts to show that the cycle of broken promises mixed with his toxic masculinity can be broken – but not that it has been yet.
The score is constantly haunting throughout, electronically composed by Blanck Mass it feels inspired by the 80’s, a retrowave/synthwave feel, and works surprisingly well. Comparatively similar to Derek Cianfrance’s Drive (2011), but more atmospheric and drone-like. That being said, there are other similarities between the two films, a simplistic way of putting it is that Calm with Horses is the Irish version of Drive, but less violent. It’s comparable but still unique, and serves as an easy way to get fans of Drive to watch this.
There’s almost a dreamlike feel to Rowland’s feature debut, not just through the sound but the way it’s shot. Though they spend much time indoors and framed very tightly, the space behind them is usually vast and almost emotionless. Ursula talks about escaping to Cork to reach a school better suited to provide for Jack’s needs but Arm doesn’t see a way out, a town that only seems to give gossip and drugs.
Though not flawless, it’s a superb first outing with brilliant performances, not least from Cosmo Jarvis stealing most scenes he’s in with the fewest possible lines, and a strong direction from Rowland all leading to a worthwhile film with a gripping emotional core.