The theme of loyalty is the driving force of Calm with Horses, a directorial debut within the crime thriller genre set in rural Ireland that sees the pairing of Cosmo Jarvis and Barry Keoghan.
Here Jarvis portrays an ex-boxer nicknamed Arm who works as a violent enforcer for a tough drug-dealing family operating in the west of Ireland, often seen at the side of one of his employers and best friend, Dymphna (Keoghan), a bleached-blonde thug seeking a reputation outside the shadow of his late father.
When we first see Arm, he is seen violently assaulting and robbing an individual in his home who as time progresses is revealed to have had a recent history with the family. Arm’s loyalty to his bosses is later tested when on an assignment, torn between his duty and his conscience, he makes a decision that might just come back to haunt him.
Alongside his professional involvement, his private life is observed as he acquaints himself with his ex-partner who is all too familiar with his career and attempts to engage with their autistic son who she wants to move down south to a specialist school, something he is reluctant to accept.
As a directorial debut, one thing that Nick Rowland brings with grittiness and the uncomforting atmosphere that is presented with conviction. Most of the characters are unlikeable and their actions corroborate that but here, it’s not about characterisation but about presentation and an insight into a world where once you’re in it, it’s practically impossible to get out of whether one wants to or not.
From the early scenes, we know we are in for an unrelenting ride as Arm batters a middle-aged man with brute force as his mother is forced to listen in a locked bedroom. But instead of violent conduct for supposed failure to repay debts as one imagines, the later twist suggests this is not an open-and-shut example of enforcement. What it really marks is the start of an ongoing storyline that becomes more intense and opens possibilities as the story progresses, leading up to a third act that includes a chilling pursuit sequence within the scenic countryside.
The sight of the Irish countryside is subverted with the beauty of the mountains and lakes contrasting with the violent activities of the criminal underworld, a symbol of supposed utopia being invaded by the dark side.
Jarvis, an American-born British actor of Armenian heritage playing with a convincing Irish accent alongside an Irish cast, is unrecognisable from his Lady Macbeth role as the buzz-sawed, hideous muscle whose underlying humane behaviour and depth prevent Arm coming across as just a one-dimensional brute.
Unpredictable is one way of describing him such as when he speaks with his ex-partner and their son’s horse trainer in a bar whilst in a boozed state not knowing what he might do. But ‘calm with horses’ is another as shown when he shows up uninvited at his son’s horse riding lesson and ends up trying it out himself, marking a rare moment of peace in his one-way-street life.
With him, violence is done because it’s business in contrast with Dymphna whose violent behaviour is triggered by a demand for respect such as when he glasses a young man in a public bar for having the audacity to refer to him by his first name and not Mr Devers. Keoghan disappears into his role as the sociopathic sort, continuing his flair for playing such roles as he did so chillingly in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
Like the recent Misbehaviour, this had the unlucky timing of being released mere days before the Coronavirus outbreak closed cinemas nationwide but saw a lifeline with its premature release onto digital platforms such as Curzon Home Cinema.
With a convincing cast that also includes Niamh Algar as Arm’s despairing ex and Ned Dennehy as Dymphna’s vicious uncle, Calm with Horses is far from relaxing viewing but nonetheless a solid crime thriller worth renting with its director added to an expanding list of new British directors who spell good vibes for the industry in these unusual times.
OUT OF FOUR STARS: ***