A grime and crime tragedy, Calm with Horses sees a hardman with a beating heart struggle with competing loyalties. It’s not a new story but a number of strong performances make this a worthwhile variation on this tried-and-true setup.
In a tiny seaside town, the formidable Devers crime family control the drug trade and protection racket. Douglas “Arm” Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) is the Devers’ enforcer, dispensing mob justice to anyone unlucky enough to miss a payment, or worse, transgress the Deverses’ strict code of honour.
“I’m told I was a violent child,” Arm tells us in a voiceover before the sequence that follows shows that upon growing up not much has changed.
In an early instance of abrupt and grisly violence – the first of many – Arm beats around Fannigan, an associate of the Devers family who needs to be taught a lesson. The action flits across the screen through jump cuts that do nothing to obscure Arm’s brutality. If anything, the rhythm of the cuts, timed to successive blows and kicks, makes the scene hard to take as anything but gruesome.
Arm leaves the scene with Dympna (Barry Keoghan), a younger member of the Devers clan. Dympna looks like the least popular member of a chart-topping boy band, preened and slick but with a tangible desperation about him.
Keoghan is great for these sorts of characters. Dympna is this bug-eyed, twitchy instigator starting things he has no chance of finishing without Arm to back him up. His manner is entirely performative, like that of a child playing at adult life.
To his uncles, Paudi and Hector (Ned Dennehy and David Wilmot) the real bosses of the Devers gang, Dympna is foolish. To Arm, he’s the only thing resembling a friend.
Back in town, Arm pays a visit to his ex, Ursula and young son, Jack, who has special needs. Ursula has a soft spot for Arm, she calls him “Douglas” and clearly sees, or remembers, a side of him that we are not yet aware of. Still, their relationship is strained by Arm’s association with the Devers and from a lack of meaningful involvement in Jack’s life.
In this scene and most others Piers McGrail’s cinematography is interested in the dinginess of the town’s interiors; people aren’t living great lives out here, all cramped and stuck together in claustrophobic misery.
Niamh Algar, who recently appeared in the charming The Last Right brings a lot of depth to Ursula and we can see her struggling with her feelings for Douglas/Arm in everything she does around him. Every word she says or doesn’t say, every action she takes seems to speak to something beyond simple anger or disappointment, what she really feels is pity.
Arm is your classic hood-with-a-heart, he’s a brute but not without humanity. Think Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront and you’re not far off. There’s a little bit of Brando in Jarvis’s performance too. He does a lot of mouth-half-open acting. Often, we see many emotions come through in one look or gesture.
Arm has the mush-mouthed manners of a child in a world of adults. Even, Dympna, a boy himself, treats Arm as an overgrown toddler, pointing him at people as though they were wooden blocks for smashing. Yet, despite his capacity to do great harm there’s a conflicting desire to do better, if not for himself then for Jack.
The best examples of this come when Arm gets out of his own way for once and avoids a potentially ugly situation. We know of this potential because we can read it on Jarvis’ face. The frightening thing about Arm is that hurting people is as natural to him as blinking. The relief for the audience comes in the form of these fake-outs, where we jump to the logical, worst outcome for Arm, and sometimes, mercifully, the scene peters out without a brouhaha.
Because Nick Rowland’s direction makes violence so ugly, and because Joe Murtagh writes the Devers family, who use Arm as a tool for violence, as irredeemable, we end up taking the most from sequences that break from the criminal aspects of the film, or brush against it in a different way.
There are two scenes part way through the picture that give us a glimpse of what life could be for Douglas and Ursula if things were different. In one, Douglas and Ursula eat hamburgers together and end up in easy conversation that gives a view into a happier past, and an impossible future.
Following on from this sequence, Arm takes Jack to the funfair but becomes frustrated when Jack gets scared of a toy rifle. Arm telling his distraught son to shut up is just as hard to watch as any of the violence in the film. Again, we’re seeing how this man, who has known nothing but fighting for so long, cannot make a better life for himself. Still, there’s a suggestion that despite failing to comfort his son, the simple act of trying is more than was ever done for Arm himself.
It’s in these snippets of what could have been that the film reaches its emotional highpoint. The mirroring of Jack and Douglas’ body language when they are angry set against the scenes featuring the horse sanctuary where father and son find some solace hit with an intensity that exceeds any of the bloodshed or beatings in the film.
Inevitably, Arm’s desire to make a better life for Jack and Ursula put him on a collision course with the Devers. It’s in these later sequences that Rowland gets to indulge, with varied success, in a Greatest Hits of the Thriller genre.
A thrilling car chase and a desperate burglary are the high points of this series. Dennehy’s performance as Paudi, as an unpredictable, half-cracked tough guy falls short of other characterisation in the film. His manner is too pantomime to really be threatening. When the film resorts to animal cruelty to justify his menace, it feels all too obvious a metaphor. The implication that Arm was an attack dog for the Devers works better than explicitly stating it.
Joe Murtagh understands genre, just as Colin Barrett did when he wrote the story from which the screenplay was adapted. “Clichés are cliché for a reason,” posits Dympna, and it’s true enough. There’s a reason that variations on characters like Douglas “Arm” Armstrong have endured and continue to populate films. There’s a desire to see things come good for these characters, who are not good people but are trying their damnedest to be better people.
Calm with Horses is on general release from 13 March.