Calm With Horses

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Calm With Horses
"It's usually Keoghan who gets the acting plaudits, but though he is good as a wannabe bad guy, it's Jarvis who provides the heft, in more ways than one here." | Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

Not all hard men are created equal - some are softer than others. And, though you might not think it to look at him, Douglas 'Arm' Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) - one-time boxer, dad to an autistic son and now enforcer at the cheap end of the Irish rural gangland - is softer than most. He's also not the sharpest tool in the box, which is how he came to be a hired pair of fists for the Devers family in the first place.

We meet him as he's about to teach one man (Liam Carney) a hard lesson in not messing with the family, as he takes instructions from Dympna (Barry Keoghan), a man who is half Arm's size but who treats him like his pet dog, right down to the language. He, in turn, takes his instructions from near-psychoti Paudi (Ned Dennehy, who is carving quite an impressive niche for himself in disturbingly off-the-wall roles with this and the recent Finky) Later, we'll see the disconnect between the blood and beatings of this and the half of Arm's life that holds his young son Jack (Kiljan Moroney) and his ex Ursula (Niamh Algar).

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The plot revolves, as it usually does in this sort of set-up, around the question of how far Arm is prepared to go for his adopted gangland "family" and how he does or does not square that with the real thing. It's usually Keoghan who gets the acting plaudits, but though he is good as a wannabe bad guy, it's Jarvis who provides the heft, in more ways than one here. When he appeared in Lady Macbeth in 2016, he was a broody, rough and ready presence. Here, he gets to show how much he's matured as an actor, bringing and excellent Irish accent and a soulful undercurrent to Arm that captures the spirit of a man with limited intellectual resources trying to grapple with the rights and wrongs of a situation. Algar, meanwhile, does a lot with a little, bringing complexity and conflict to her position as a mum of a troubled kid and friend of his troubled dad, in a role that, if it had had more attention from Joe Murtagh's script, could have elevated the more formulaic elements of this drama into more interesting territory.

There is also a slightly stagey quality to some of first-time feature director Nick Rowland's interior sequences - which have a moody, red-dominated lighting that feels out of place with the general bleakness of the exterior shots captured by cinematographer Piers McGrail - but Murtagh (who previously contributed to American Animals) by and large keeps the scripting tight and when Rowland amps up the action with a car chase, it has a raw immediacy. It's Jarvis, though, who is the real draw here, proving he is more than able to go the distance with acting heavyweights like Keoghan.

Reviewed on: 30 Apr 2020
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Thriller about a crime enforcer for a clan of drug dealers, while also trying to be a good father to his autistic son.
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