There is a pathetic beauty to Calm With Horses which alternately breaks and warms your heart. The characters in Nick Rowland’s West of Ireland set film speak wistfully of Cork as if it is a far off land and for most of them – shackled tight to their ugly lives – it is as far out of reach as the escape to Mexico a bumbling minion proposes when things start to go awry.
Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) is a man of few words. His life as a promising young boxer derailed after a fight went horribly wrong and sent him careening into the deadly embrace of The Devers. This shambolic crime family rule over the cracked pavements, terraces and cattle sheds of the locale with nicotine-stained fists and perplexing priorities.
Arm was recruited into the fold by Devers nephew Dympna (Barry Keoghan), a smalltown rat boy whose family connections (and muscular friend) afford him stale crumbs of respect in the local pub and endless conflicting orders to execute from the family elders. At its head is Paudi (Ned Dennehy), a mood-swinging panto villain with a vicious streak and the more biddable Hector (David Wilmot), distracted from Devers’ business by a wealthy widow.
Calm With Horses opens with its focus on Arm’s slowly clenching fingers, knuckles whitening, tension ratcheting up. In voiceover, he tells us that he was prone to violence as a child but violence turned on himself. As the narrative unfolds it becomes clear that Arm is still self-harming, his own life is now the weapon he is using to inflict the pain.
Anchoring Arm to his humanity and the ghost of his old life are his son Jack (Kiljan Tyr Moroney) and his ex, Ursula (Niamh Algar). But Ursula recognises the urgency of getting Jack far away from their small town and is ready to make a change. Their son appears to be on the autistic spectrum and she has found a school in Cork where he will blossom but acknowledges that the change is for her own sake too.
Arm and Ursula frequently fall into step together, conversationally and physically and there is an ease between them which exists nowhere else in Arm’s world. He softens around her and Jack, as long as things remain easy, yet she retains the careful watchfulness of a woman who has lived in the shadow of violence and come out the other side. She deftly manages Arm’s paranoia and gives him the gift of her trust time and again.
Cosmo Jarvis will rightfully be praised for his brooding, anguished performance but it is Niamh Algar who makes Calm With Horses something better than the sum of its parts. Ursula’s self-deprecation and nods to their shared past allow us to project more decency onto Arm than he has actually earned. They give us a window into what he has the potential to be and that lends pathos to the somewhat frustrating narrative.
With a horrible inevitability, Arm is dragged down by his masters and Blanck Mass’s unsettlingly dreamy electronic score pulls us under with him. Piers McGrail’s sweeping cinematography takes an ironic pitstop early in the film at a scrap of land with the carcasses of train carriages scattered about. All going nowhere, just like the young men within. Hollywood has trained us to look for moments of redemption but there is no hope here.
Calm With Horses is spare, savage and beautiful with much to admire. The careless brutality of its ‘family’ of men and the cluster of fiercely proud women at its core recall Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors (though this lacks the power to be as memorable). The flimsy story may be a tale as old as time but its tellers make it well worth investing yours.
Calm With Horses will be available on digital platforms from Monday 27th April 2020