Calm With Horses review: An arresting Irish noir
Cosmo Jarvis' containment9
Ned Dennehy's menace9
Anton Bitel | On 27, Apr 2020
Director: Nick Rowland
Cast: Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, Kiljan Moroney, David Wilmot
“That’s not you.” These words are stated – twice by different characters – to Douglas (Cosmo Jarvis), the protagonist of Calm With Horses. Douglas indeed comes with a brutal inner conflict. In a voiceover that opens the film, he states: “I’m told I was a violent child, usually to meself – whether it was knocking my head against the wall or mauling at my own fingers till they bled.”
This internal division is reflected in the different ways that he is addressed. For while Ursula (Niamh Algar) – his ex-partner and the mother of his autistic son Jack (Killian Moroney) – always uses Douglas’ given name, his adoptive family call him “Arm”. It may sound an affectionate nickname, but it reflects how Douglas has been instrumentalised by Dympna Devers (Barry Keoghan), who, together with his uncles Paudi (a terrifying Ned Dennehy) and Hector (David Wilmot), controls all the drugs in this small clifftop Irish town. For all that Dympna calls Douglas his “bro”, he uses the hulking ex-boxer as mere muscle (hence the nickname), and treats him like an obedient lapdog.
“Most people want to stay on the right side of the Devers family,” says Douglas, although this sounds, significantly, like “the Devil’s family” in his drawled pronunciation. “I’m what you meet if you ever find yourself on the wrong side.”
At the beginning of Calm With Horses, we see him meting out a savage beating to Fannigan (Liam Carney), a Devers associate accused of fiddling with Dympna’s 14-year-old sister at a party. A different version of what went down and who was responsible will be implied (without ever quite being stated) by the film, but what is important is the way that Fannigan stoically awaits what he knows is coming to him anyway. For Nick Rowland’s first feature, adapted by Joseph Murtagh from Colin Barrett’s short story of the same name, is a parochial crime saga laden with a sense of noirish doom; Fannigan is all too aware of the cards that fate has dealt him, and although he can delay the coming retribution, he is unable ultimately to escape it – and that fatalistic dynamic extends to our tragic hero Douglas, who departs from the right side of the Devers family to, well, the right side of morality.
The Devers openly define their allegiances not by blood, but by loyalty – and Douglas, who is not known for his reflective abilities, cannot see that the loyalty they demand only goes one way. Meanwhile, Douglas – brooding, largely uncommunicative, capable of raging destruction – struggles to maintain his connection with a young son who is a lot like his father.
Douglas is calmed as much as Jack by the therapeutic horses that Ursula’s new love interest Rob (Anthony Welsh) manages. Although he tells his screaming son to “just be fucking normal” in one painful scene, the possibility of a regular life for Douglas seems far more remote; his normality is rooted in horrific violence.
Both Jack and Ursula have a chance at a better future in a different environment – and Douglas’ gradual acceptance of this, rather than keeping his loved ones trapped in the same way that others keep him on a short leash, reveals deep down who he really is, or at least can be.
Ironically sharing his name with the Trojan hero of Homer’s Iliad, Hector also longs to break free. Recently, he has been seeing an elderly widow Maire (Bríd Brennan), who is said to be sitting on a fortune. All Hector’s family and criminal associates assume that Hector is a gold digger, yet the film suggests an alternative possibility: that Maire, in all her refined respectability, represents Hector’s own longing to escape his criminal circumstances, and his hope for the normal life that he can never really have. Douglas, too, cannot escape himself – but perhaps, in the end, that is not such a bad thing.
Playing out like Miller’s Crossing, but with a main character who’s a “halfwit” goon rather than a calculating plotter – or like Dogman, but with the menacing giant the protagonist rather than his diminutive friend – Calm With Horses boasts an extraordinarily contained central performance from Jarvis, and a strong sense of place that brings new, real tensions to old gangland tropes. This Irish noir is an arrestingly assured debut for Rowland.