Film Review: Calm With Horses Dir: Nick Rowland

Starring: Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, Kiljan Moroney, David Wilmot.

Calm with Horses is a bleak, explosive thriller with a broken heart, and the feature directorial debut of Nick Rowland.

Set in rural Ireland, the film follows brutal drug-family enforcer, Arm (Cosmo Jarvis), and his attempts to navigate a hopeless world of violence while struggling to connect with his autistic son, Jack (Kiljan Moroney).

“I had this memory of someone holding me, just holding me to stop screaming. I don’t know why I’m screaming…”

The opening monologue in Nick Rowland’s feature-film debut, Calm with Horses, immediately sets a tone of grim endurance around its central characters and the soulless world they inhabit. Adapted into a screenplay from Colin Barrett’s short story of the same name, screenwriter Joseph Murtagh brilliantly brings the 71-page story to life on screen in all its horror and humanity from the opening words of the film.

We meet Dymphna (Barry Keoghan), the younger, flamboyant member of the Devers crime family, who directs an emotionless Arm and his formidable physique into a nearby house to assault a man. The casual, effortless application of Arm’s violence is the most troubling and unsettling aspect of these opening sections, which are filled with the same repetitive, damp thuds as the worst parts of Fight Club.

Shortly afterward, we meet the rest of the Devers family (with a brilliantly slimy Ned Dennehy and vile David Wilmot) and discover the abhorrent act that led to the act of retribution. It’s immediately clear this isn’t a world of good or bad, but just pain. Endless, inescapable human suffering. Contrasted against this bleak hell is Arm’s former, secondary life; his ex-partner Ursula (Niamh Algar) and their young son, Jack.

Jack struggles with his development in such an isolated town, and Ursula is equally desperate to escape both her past and the town, and put Jack into a school where he can receive adequate care and assistance with learning. This stark reality for Arm causes explosive friction between his family and the unpredictable Devers, leading to a boiling sense of rage as Arm is manipulated throughout the first half of the film.

Sewn throughout this narrative is the stunning cinematography of Piers McGrail, capturing all the life and lifelessness of the desolate village – from the ashen concrete houses to the abandoned stores in bright canary yellow, and long, wider shots of the softer greens and natural peace of the countryside. The narrative and visual contrast between these two worlds provide a constant, bubbling sense of anxiety and horror into the film’s second half.

The film’s main arc involves Arm being ordered to commit murder by the Devers, and the fallout that follows. However, the intertwining narrative of Arm’s relationship with his ex-partner and son is the truly gut-wrenching aspect on display. Not just for his son’s anxiety and inability to control his emotions, but Arm’s inability to deal with these situations as well. He’s as poorly equipped as Jack, and the result is a distressing cycle of disappointment and electrifying performances.

One particularly shining scene involves Arm taking Jack to a fairground, where the distressed father attempts to create a sense of enjoyment as much for himself as his son. His dominant, but well-meaning, nature causes Jack to grow anxious and reduces the boy to tears. Desperate, Arm does everything he can – within his abilities – to console the child, while at the same time visibly fighting the primal, instinctual urge to become violent.

Knowing he is ill-equipped to be either a father, or a compassionate, caring man, Arm returns Jack to the child’s grandmother with the crushing agony of this realisation burning in his body. It’s one of many exquisite and simple moments which transform this otherwise grimy thriller into an intense, heartbreaking study of the human condition.

These stunning moments of directing, writing, and acting brilliance all build to a satisfying, if slightly deflated, conclusion. But then, this feels authentic in the world we’re presented; one where hope only exists in tiny fragments of humanity, and forms a tragic mosaic of a truly abysmal existence.

Oxford Lamoureaux

Calm with Horses is screening in New Zealand cinemas from Thursday, July 23, 2020