Calm With Horses is a film that switched from a cinema release to streaming in the UK; Nick Rowland’s debut feature is a tough study of a rural Irish gangster, and while that’s a subject that’s been hammered into the ground for some time, manages to inject something new in the form of a breakthrough performance by Cosmo Jarvis. With Michael Fassbender exec-producing, Calm With Horses is something of an acting showcase, and while over-familiarity with the genre conventions is something of a disadvantage, this is an intense drama which can be recommended to cineastes and the casual viewer alike.
Arm (Jarvis) is an ex-boxer; he says he killed a man in the ring. Opportunities for employment are few and far between in Ireland; he ends up becoming a left-hand man to the Devers clan of low-life crims, namely Dympna (Barry Keoghan). In a plotline with shades of the Straw Dogs sub-plot, Arm is asked to take action on a known paedophile, but rather than do so, allows the guilty man to escape, precipitating a series of violent incidents that divide the feast of snakes that Arm sits amongst.
The ‘hit-man with a conscience’ trope was due to be retired decades ago, and without any kind of new angle there’s no surprises in the plotting here; a cringe-worthy sub-Martin McDonaugh dialogue about tv detective Ironside is also worthy of excision. Arm is humanised by giving him an ex-partner Ursula (Niamh Algar) and a five-year old autistic son, plausible perhaps, but also a ham-fisted way to create easy identification. Apart from an early beating, we don’t really see enough of Arm ‘s regular life to empathise with his rebellion; Calm With Horses strives for a tough guy attitude that hides a sentimental, mushy heart.
Keoghan has been auspicious in The Killing of a Sacred Deer and American Animals, and plays well as a nasty piece of work, a spiky combination of cheap drugs and a wayward haircut. Such touches might seem cartoonish, but Cosmo Jarvis works some real alchemy here, putting something new into a noble savage character that dominates the screen; there’s a strong scene in which Arm makes a rapid escape by car which benefits from a lack of fast cutting and a tight focus on Jarvis’ face.
There’s not much calm and not many horses in Rowland’s film, but there’s lots of angst, lots of macho bravado, and lots of downcast, doom-laden behaviour. It’s grim, but it is effective, and Calm With Horses should propel Jarvis to the top of any casting director’s wish-list.
Calm with Horses debuts in the UK from April 27th following the film’s curtailed theatrical release owing to cinema closures in March. It will be available on a broad range of VOD platforms including Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, Sky Store, Virgin Movies, Talk Talk, BT TV, Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player, Rakuten TV and Volta from 27th April 2020.