“I’m told I was a violent child,” says Douglas Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) in the opening minutes of Calm With Horses, and that admission sets the tone for the often-bruising film to follow. Arm is soft-spoken and timid, gentle and hesitant—until, all of a sudden, he’s not. Until he’s throwing a man through a glass table, kicking his jaw, punching him in the face. Arm does what he’s told as a hired enforcer, and he doesn’t ask questions.
Director Nick Rowland immediately inserts us into Calm With Horses, based on a collection of stories by author Colin Barrett. The setting is an Irish town by the sea, all sunken buildings and empty roads. People keep their doors closed here, but news travels quick. We begin with a horrific display of violence from Arm, and then we zoom outward, situating this attack into the community at large—a community that knows what Arm is capable of, and because of who he reports to, lets him do it.
Because the Devers family basically runs this little corner of Ireland, and to be blunt about it, they’re all essentially assholes! Infighting drug dealers who don’t trust anyone but each other—and even then, not fully—the Devers rule in comfort knowing that Arm can beat the shit out of anyone who bothers them. There’s Paudi Dever (Ned Dennehy, of Peaky Blinders), who’s quick to pull a gun on anyone who threatens him, and Hector (David Wilmot), who is less involved but still benefits from being a Dever, and they’re both uncles to Dympna (Barry Keoghan, of Chernobyl), who is set to be the next leader of the family.
Who is Dymnpa to Arm? A sort of best friend, maybe, but a truly terrible one, who mocks Arm’s intelligence, who insults Arm’s ex-girlfriend Ursula (Niamh Algar), and who doesn’t take Arm’s son’s autism seriously. It’s Dympna who is always pushing Arm into increasingly awful situations but then praising his loyalty, as if everything about Arm’s life is just a joke. And still, Arm takes it, and takes it, and takes it—until he’s commanded to kill a man. Is that level of violence something Arm can do? And if it isn’t, what does that mean for his future with the Devers? Or with Ursula and their son Jack?
The image of a brawly man with a soft heart isn’t uncommon in literature or film; think of Of Mice and Men or The Green Mile, or Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, or Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here with our new Joker Joaquin Phoenix, or the earlier 2019 release The Mustang. All of those narratives question our individual limits for violence, and probe at the edges of toxic masculinity to unearth answers. When Calm With Horses goes down that route is when the film is at its best: Jarvis is impressively compelling onscreen, a man who communicates through his brawniness an ease for destruction and a personal discomfort with who he’s become. His interactions with his son and Ursula clue us into the man he was before, and although Joe Murtagh’s script is far too skimpy in terms of sketching how their relationship fell apart and how Arm fell so deeply under the Devers’ spell, Jarvis’s performance transcends it.
Too often, though, the film falls into a rhythm of telling us something twice: We see Arm fumble together a lie and then get caught in it later, when it’s uncovered and explained back to him; we see Ursula share a harrowing story of how ostracized she is by the town for her son’s autism, and then we see those same townspeople verbally harass her. In those moments, Calm With Horses doubles down on its narrative instead of letting what we see onscreen speak for itself. The script’s repetition sometimes overshadows solid cinematography from Piers McGrail, which emphasizes the bleakness and hopelessness of this town in contrast to the gorgeous verdant greenery around it, and that strong performance from Jarvis (which builds into a quite exquisite long take in the final minutes of the film, where we focus on his face and nothing else). The film may be uneven overall, but the elements of Calm With Horses that are successful are nauseatingly bloody, emotionally engaging, and unrelentingly tense.
Calm With Horses screened in the Discovery category at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.
Header Image Source: TIFF