Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) finds himself caught between his role as the imposing enforcer for the feared drug-dealing Devers family and his love for his estranged partner (Niamh Algar) and child (Kiljan Moroney). Torn between the two families, Arm’s loyalties are tested when he is asked to kill for the first time.
Calm with Horses, originally released in Ireland at the Dublin International Film Festival, has finally found an audience on Netflix. And we are so lucky for it; the film treads familiar ground — the sway between domestic happiness and criminal life — but also delivers an original, impactful punch. Director Nick Rowland’s feature debut thrives on strong performances, especially from lead Cosmo Jarvis, a setting vague enough to make the story near-parable, and a plot built on a palpable sense of tense, simmering violence.
Joseph Murtagh’s screenplay, based off the eponymous short story by Colin Barrett, is tight and hits all the right notes. In an age of climbing film run times, Murtagh resists the urge to turn Calm with Horses into an overblown crime family epic, instead focusing intensely on Arm’s relationship with his own family and the Devers. This does come at the cost of not learning much about the Devers, especially the women. The narrative suffers from a lack of female perspective; Calm with Horses begins with one of the Devers’ daughters being sexually assaulted. We never hear her side of this awful story, nor the family matriarchs’ perspectives. The incident is papered over as a plot device, to the film’s detriment. This, however, is the only major issue with a story that is otherwise fast-paced, intelligent, and surprisingly sensitive in parts.
Rowland’s directing and cinematographic style is perfectly suited to Calm with Horses’ claustrophobic atmosphere. The backdrop of small-town Ireland is shot in disorienting jump cuts, giving us little firm sense of where we are. In that way the film could be set anywhere, adding weight to the narrative push-and-pull of Arm having to choose between loyalty to his employers or his family. The sound design, built on flowing electronic music that swells and recedes like the seaside setting, is also mesmerising. This atmosphere building is the perfect companion for the climatic ending; while it’s not original, Calm with Horses takes its climax in a whole new direction thanks to Rowland. The film’s sense of inevitable oppressive bleakness is well contrasted with a ray of hope right at the end that tugs at the heart strings and is bound to leave viewers thinking.
Cosmo Jarvis is totemic as gritty but soulful enforcer Arm. He seems uneasy in the presence of both his family and the Devers. He even seems uncertain around his supposed friend, Dympna (played with real venom by Barry Keoghan). Arm is a true fish out of water, with his haunting past as a boxer further adding intrigue to his psyche. Niamh Algar and Keoghan are the ideal counterweights to Jarvis’ performance; we can’t help but pity Dymopna’s vile loyalty to his family, while Algar’s brave, fragile performance as Arm’s partner Ursula gives us welcome doses of sentiment amidst the sound and fury. The collective power of the ensemble makes Calm with Horses good, but its Jarvis that makes it great. His performance at the film’s climax in particular will leave you shaken, so prepare yourself.
If you are looking for a gritty crime drama outside of the usual American fare, Calm with Horses is THE place to start. Tense and tender in equal measure, it’s the perfect balance.
Calm with Horses treads a line between original and familiar with precision. Powerful in all the right places. 8/10.
Check out Calm with Horses on Netflix today!