Calm With Horses is a stunning first feature by director Nick Rowland, adapted by screenwriter Joe Murtagh from a short story by Colin Barrett in his Young Skins collection, executive produced by actor Michael Fassbender.
Wild West Coast Wayby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Calm With Horses jolts you uncomfortably from the start with a gratuitously violent attack on a middle-aged man in his own home. He knows it’s coming and there’s no point resisting, so he pleads “Just make it quick.”
A brutal and visceral punishment has been meted out by the young man whose voiceover we hear first. Nicknamed Arm (Cosmo Jarvis, Lady Macbeth, Peaky Blinders), he’s a former boxer, who now works as the enforcer for the drug-dealing family of criminals, the Devers, who lord it over this remote part of rural Ireland.
Arm lives with them but he’s not really part of them, he’s the hired help who does their dirty work. The extended family is ruled by two brothers, psychopathic Paudi (Ned Dennehy) and his outwardly more respectable brother Hector (David Wilmot).
A young nephew of the Devers Dympna (a chillingly sadistic, manipulative but insecure Barry Keoghan) is in training as the next generation to take over the family firm. He’s Arm’s so-called friend, but he treats him as if he owns him, and force-feeds him alcohol and drugs to make him do the job that he’s reluctant to – taking the step up from beating to killing someone.
Arm has a non-verbal five-year-old autistic son ((Kiljan Moroney) with his resignedly angry ex-partner Ursula (Niamh Algar, The Virtues). The only thing that calms the boy’s screaming fits is being with horses. Their gentleness symbolises everything that is missing from these lives.
Ursula wants to leave their no-hope small coastal town and take their son to Cork, where he can receive more specialised therapy, but she needs Arm to contribute some cash, which he doesn’t have. Arm doesn’t know how to look after his son or cope with his own life. He is being pushed too far by the Devers and he wants to be a good father: he is struggling with his conscience and with half-understood feelings. He’s out of control but he knows that the time has come to find a resolution.
The ugliness of the small town and the cruelty and ultra-violence taking place in it contrast sharply with the beauty of the rural landscapes that surround it, filmed in coastal Galway and County Clare. The incongruity is epitomised by a mad, murderous car chase through the soft hills with a herd of sheep.
Jarvis becomes more and more compelling as Arm, especially completely alone in a crucial scene on the phone. Although this particular scene may seem overlong, the film as a whole is a fast-moving, tense free-fall with a breathless soundtrack.
Calm With Horses is original, with images that stay in your memory, but it’s also extremely violent and emotionally bleak, and a very hard watch indeed.
Calm With Horses screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 13 March 2020 in the UK. Calm With Horses is released digitally on 27 April 2020 on a broad range of VOD platforms including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, Sky Store, Virgin Movies, Talk Talk, BT TV, Curzon Home Cinema, BFI Player, Rakuten TV and Volta.