Sometimes a new setting and a strong performance are all you need to save an old story from itself. That’s certainly the case with first-time director Nick Rowland’s Calm With Horses, a seemingly rote gangster drama given life by its Irish sensibilities and central character. You’ve seen this story countless times before in some shape or another, particularly in American cinema: Douglas “Arm” Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) is a disgraced former boxer turned Irish mob enforcer who is thrown into a nest of vipers when he chooses not to murder a member outcast from the group. There’s an array of stock characters on display performing exactly as expected here, from Arm’s careless, egotistical young boss Dymphna (Barry Keoghan) to the bloodthirsty, menacing gang leader Paudi (Ned Dennehy). What makes it all worth watching is Rowland’s commitment to making this a distinctly Irish story that attempts to speak to the country’s moral conflicts while also providing a quiet but thrilling look into an underworld rarely seen by those outside its borders.
Authenticity is a word thrown around a lot by filmmakers and critics alike when discussing the merits of a work, and Rowland is confidently striving for it here. Working from a script by Joe Murtaugh that was in turn adapted from a short story of the same name by Colin Barrett, Rowland strives to capture the reality of a variety of Irish social issues through the lens of a traditional crime story. There’s any number of cultural struggles on display, from ideas of honor and respect to grappling with poverty and gender violence. Rowland is careful not to demonize or lecture his Irish subjects, instead of working to portray their working-class obstacles with honesty and integrity.
The biggest weapon in his repertoire is Jarvis, an English musician-turned-actor who burst onto the scene with his tricky performance in Lady Macbeth. In his first real leading role, Jarvis delivers a heart-wrenching, commanding performance that anchors the entire film. While he may not be Irish himself, Jarvis is completely convincing in the role, transforming himself into a character whose conflicted, tender heart has been tested by the struggles of Irish poverty and abandonment. Jarvis is best in his quieter moments, usually when Arm is working to connect with his ex Ursula (Niamh Algar) and their young, autistic son Jack (Klijan Moroney). In a community where Jack is still ostracized because of his condition, Arm struggles to accept and nurture his love for his son in-between his bouts of guilt over his criminal activities. It’s a wide swath of issues for one character to deal with, and Jarvis sells it all with an undeniable sensitivity that gives the film its soul and sense of purpose.
Outside of Jarvis and Rowland’s sensitive direction, the film’s familiarity and deliberate pacing threaten to lull you to sleep. Keoghan, Dennehy, and Algar give solid performances but their roles are let down by the script’s over-reliance on stereotypes, giving them one-note characterization that not even their collective charisma can overcome. This is a story full of characters behaving exactly as you’d expect from minute one, and as a result the story never goes anywhere particularly fresh. The predetermined acts of violence and betrayal all land with a resounding thud. The exception is the knockout punch of Rowland and Jarvis, who acknowledge the impact of the film’s aching Irish heart and elevate Calm with Horses into a worthwhile exercise in spinning the same old yarn once more.
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