REVIEW: ‘Calm With Horses’ Is A Truly Heart-Pounding Thriller With A Revelatory Lead Performance

Rating: 5 out of 5.

“solidifies Rowland as a bold directorial talent for the future”

The opening shot of Calm With Horses is an extreme close up of a fist clenching, skin tightening over worn and weary knuckles. It’s a clear statement of intent from first-time feature director Nick Rowland – with this gritty, gnawing tale of crime and punishment in rural Ireland, he’s not pulling any punches.

Set in a run-down yet picturesque small town, Calm With Horses is a ticking time bomb of a movie about family, loyalty, and the pain that stems from having to decide between the two. Cosmo Jarvis is Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong: an ex-boxer, Arm is a vast, menacing yet bumbling presence of a man, feared across town as the hired muscle for the Devers crime family. Used as some kind of pitbull by conniving upstart Dympna (Barry Keoghan), he ends up on the wrong side of those for whom he used to enforce punishment, in an effort to be a better man and father for his ex-girlfriend Ursula (Niamh Algar) and young son Jack (Kiljan Moroney).

The violence kicks in quickly, reminiscent of S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 in its underplayed, matter-of-fact brutality. Rowland is masterful in the building and releasing of tension, leaving your nerves in tatters during some of the power plays between characters while letting the adrenaline escape through laughter in others.

On reflection, it’s clear how many elements Calm With Horses is juggling – crime thriller, family drama, dark comedy – but the film never once feels incongruous, the tonal shifts never disorientating. All of the cogs work together perfectly to submerge the audience in this one character’s life; to get into the head of someone who may physically be the most powerful in any room, but whose spirit has been so squashed that he is often defenceless against manipulation from those around him. 

Cosmo Jarvis is remarkable, giving a breakout performance that will surely see his star rise. Rowland has spoken of him being somewhat of a method actor, and fellow cast members have talked of how he never once lost that faultless West Irish accent during filming.

Jarvis spectacularly embodies the physicality of the role, not just in Arm’s size and muscle but his mannerisms – how he holds his mouth slightly askew feels like a manifestation of him struggling to articulate his thoughts, and there’s a kind of cowed pliability to his movements that speaks to his years being used (and literally referred to) as a body part and nothing else. He exudes a roguish charm, and the juxtaposition of his physical strength with his emotional vulnerability keeps him endearing and sympathetic to the audience, despite the savagery of his actions at times.

Barry Keoghan provides stellar support as Dympna, an unbearably entitled cousin in the Devers clan. Transformed through a dodgy blonde dye job and questionable choices in knitwear, he’s happy to start any fight knowing Arm is there to finish it. His coercion of the protagonist is downright villainous, and he knows just how to get Arm’s rage to bubble right under the surface before sending him off to let it boil over.

Giving some much needed heart and hopefulness to the film is Niamh Algar as Arm’s ex, Ursula, and Kiljan Moroney as their son, Jack. Algar and Jarvis have an easy kind of chemistry that so beautifully paints their history, while Moroney (who was only five at the time of shooting) conveys incredible complexity with such little dialogue. 

There’s an atmosphere and an energy to the film that is hard to shake. Benjamin John Power’s score is pounding at times while tender at others, and a scene in the nightclub is one of the most effective uses of music to convey a character’s internal journey in recent memory. The cinematography is striking, particularly so in the contrast of the lush rural outside against the often grimy, peeling interiors. One shot down at Paudi’s (Ned Dennehy) farmhouse epitomises this, with him, Dympna and Arm discussing the ugly details of their criminal deeds silhouetted at a table in the foreground, whilst the window behind them looks out at a quaint little boat and rolling green hills. 

Whether its making you cry, laugh or cower in fear, Calm With Horses barely loosens its grip on the audience for a second. The only time its momentum seems to slow is once the final act kicks in, with a harrowing climactic confrontation leading to a good twenty minutes of meandering.

But, it’s worth it when you discover what its setting up – a long, eight minute take that solidifies Rowland as a bold directorial talent for the future, and Jarvis as an acting force to be reckoned with. This nerve-shredding near-masterpiece may be calm by name, but is utterly thrilling by nature. 

Director: Nick Rowland

Writer: Joe Murtagh

Cast: Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar

Producer: Daniel Emmerson

Images courtesy of Altitude Films.