Calm with Horses begins brutally: we see a middle-aged man having his head smashed through a glass table by a thick-necked thug. The threat of gut-wrenching violence looms heavily over this tense crime thriller, adapted from a short story by Irish author Colin Barrett and executive produced by Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs, X-Men: First Class). But cleverly, first-time feature film director Nick Rowland (he’s previously helmed episodes of TV’s Ripper Street and Hard Sun) uses actual bloodshed sparingly as he builds a gripping semi-redemption story.
That thick-necked thug is our antihero, Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong (Peaky Blinders’ Cosmo Jarvis), a once-promising boxer whose career ended in a tragedy that’s never quite spelled out. With few career opportunities in his remote coastal community, Arm agrees to work as an enforcer for a grim family of drug dealers, the Devers. Though he’s ostensibly treated as a surrogate son – this lot go big on family loyalty – Arm is really a hired heavy who does the dirty work that his friend Dympna Devers (Dunkirk’s Barry Keoghan) balks at.
This dirty work includes “dealing with” the middle-aged man we see him beating to a pulp in the opening scene. He’s a former Devers associate who betrayed their loyalty by molesting a family member at a party. Arm is clearly disgusted at having to deliver the Devers’ rough justice, but he’s driven by a desire to provide for his own family, ex-girlfriend Ursula (Raised By Wolves’ Niamh Algar) and their young son Jack, who seems to be severely autistic. Jack is visibly soothed by visits to a local horse riding school, which gives the film its title.
Arm’s tragedy isn’t just that he can’t live up to others’ expectations; it’s also that he can’t be the man he wants to be. After he persuades Ursula to let him look after Jack, a trip to the funfair ends in painful disappointment when the easily distressed boy has a terrible screaming fit. Arm can’t calm him down, so freaks out and drops him off with a grandparent in desperation. He’s squandered his chance to prove he can be a reliable father.
Still, Jarvis – who has also released four pop rock albums – makes him a compelling and almost sympathetic figure as Arm realises the only way to save his loved ones is to sacrifice himself to the Devers. Rowland steers the film stylishly to a moving conclusion, helped by a tension-building electronic score from Blanck Mass aka Fuck Buttons’ Benjamin John Power. Calm with Horses isn’t the most dazzlingly original crime thriller of the year, and some minor characters such as Devers family patriarch Paudi (Peaky Blinders’ Ned Dennehy) feel two-dimensional. But there’s no doubt that Rowland has crafted a powerful and enthralling film that packs a hefty emotional punch.
- Director: Nick Rowland
- Starring: Barry Keoghan, Cosmo Jarvis, Niamh Algar, Simone Kirby
- Release date: March 13