Nick Rowland’s feature debut, based on a short story, starts with explosive, explicit violence that immediately and effectively establishes the world: unforgiving, honour-bound, and never without the threat of death. The enforcer Douglas (Cosmo Jarvis), an ex-boxer, is stuck in his small Irish town at the bidding of his buddy (Barry Keoghan), a crime family heir who plies Douglas with cocaine and (relatively) steady emotional connection. In his other life, a resentful ex-partner and their autistic son rely on him for financial and emotional stability he does not know how to provide, and he finds himself drawn towards the therapeutic riding instructor who has such a great effect on his child.
The moral ambiguity of almost all characters is initially jarring, but the careful, almost neutral exploration all are subject to over the course of the film renders them understandable, if not wholly sympathetic. Trusting the viewers to find connection in these honest portrayals is a brave storytelling choice that pays off tremendously; Calm With Horses rejects easy answers and conventional moralities to create a thought-provoking, poignant narrative with staying power. Jarvis is a revelation; his threatening physical presence carries over from Lady Macbeth but here, a rich inner life comes through even when Douglas cannot find the words.
There are some odd cuts and camera angles that occasionally take the viewer out of the world, but overall the film is a solid debut that prioritises the messy humanity of its performances over its technical prowess.
Calm With Horses is uncompromisingly ugly and quietly heartbreaking, a meticulous picture of a family at war with the world and a man at war with himself. Jarvis’ star turn marks him as a screen talent to watch, and its script brings each character’s best and worst qualities to life with no extraneous exposition.
CAST: Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy
DIRECTOR: Nick Rowland
WRITERS: Joe Murtagh
SYNOPSIS: After refusing to follow through with a hit, ex-boxer Douglas finds his already complicated life – separated partner, autistic son, and ties to a family of drug dealers – falling apart.