Calm With Horses (Review) – The flickering light of redemption in a brutal world

Based on the award-winning short story by Colin Barrett, and adapted for the screen by Joe Murtagh. Director Nick Rowland’s Calm With Horses is nothing short of electric crime drama. In a debut feature film that explores masculinity, community and crime without broad brush stereotypes or cliches. Wrapping the audience in a heart-breaking and violent portrait of limited opportunity, social isolation and fatherhood in rural Ireland. Where the trajectory of one man’s life as an enforcer and fixer lays in the hands of a criminal family. Who not only manipulate and control him, but also the community surrounding him.

In both style and tone Calm With Horses owes much to the Australian drama Animal Kingdom and Michaël R. Roskam’s Bullhead. By dovetailing themes of criminal activity, substance misuse and masculinity with a far more nuanced and complex study of self created entrapment. While equally drawing the audience into a cul-de-sac of options as the story spirals towards its conclusion.

Douglas (Cosmo Jarvis) is an ex-semi-professional boxer. Whose boxing career ended suddenly on accidentally killing another young man in the ring. His life since stuck in a trap of servitude to the Devers family led by Paudi (Ned Dennehy) and his slightly more respectable brother Hector (David Wilmot). Their large extended family ruling the towns local drug scene with an iron grip of violence and fear. While Douglas provides his brute strength in further enabling the control the family business wields. His talents held on leash by the violent and controlling young Dympna (Barry Keoghan).

Meanwhile, Douglas splits his duty to the family with the needs of his ex girlfriend Ursula (Niamh Algar). And their five year old autistic son Jack (Kiljan Moroney). His relationship to both mother and son shrouded by the violence of his day job, and the drugs, alcohol and dirty money he brings home. However, while family relationships are strained by his life choices. Douglas also struggles to adapt to the special needs of his son. Wishing for him to be ‘normal’, as the ghosts of his own childhood interface with Jack’s special needs. 

As Douglas’ world slowly changes with Jack needing to move to a special school near Cork. The Devers instruct him and Dympna to carry out a punishment beating of a local man. Who has been accused of sexually molesting one of the Dever’s girls. However, what starts as an act of violent retribution soon takes Douglas down a much darker road. His sense of security and understanding of the violence surrounding him, leading him down a path of no return. 

There is a stark and foreboding atmosphere surrounding Nick Rowland’s film from the outset. As the you enter a world surrounded by poverty of opportunity, community control and fear. However, unlike many similar cinematic explorations over the years, Rowland’s finds a far more nuanced path. One that centres on the role of family and belonging as much as it does the darkness of violence and crime. With both Dympna and Douglas products of their own childhood and adolescence, while equally diverging in the moral path they take. As one realises that family is about care, love and escape, while the other is consumed by the need to please and maintain place at any cost.

And its here that both lead performances truly shine. With Barry Keoghan embodying the malevolent anger and power of a damaged yet protected young man. While Cosmo Jarvis embodies the stilted emotional development of a man, who has mistakenly placed his allegiance and respect into the wrong hands. But allied to this Jarvis also encapsulates the animalistic power of Brando’s Stanley Kowalski, in A Streetcar Named Desire.Wrapped in an emotional self awakening and rebirth that all too briefly lights the darkness surrounding him.

Calm with Horses in nothing short of an outstanding debut feature, that leaves an indelible mark on the audience. As it explores the trappings of opportunity fuelled by a poverty of choice, education and emotional development.

Director: Nick Rowland

Cast: Ned DennehyBarry KeoghanNiamh Algar, Cosmo Jarvis, David Wilmot

Calm With Horses is released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 13th March