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Douglas “Arm” Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis) is a former pugilist so pummeled into submission by work and life that “downcast” has become his default mode. He’s the kind of guy who seems like his sweat glands overcompensate because he’s always holding back tears. Director Nick Rowland couldn’t ask for a more magnetically tormented character to anchor his low-key-to-a-fault feature debut, Calm With Horses, which was adapted by screenwriter Joe Murtagh from Irish author Colin Barrett’s short story of the same name in his 2014 collection Young Skins, and executive produced by actor Michael Fassbender via his production company DMC Film.
Plot-wise, it’s not much you haven’t seen before — essentially Mean Streets transposed to a sleepy, economically depressed town by the Irish seaside. “Arm,” as he’s called throughout, is first seen speaking with his fists to a man who has run afoul of the Devers family, drug-running mobsters, led by the seething, psychotic Paudi (Ned Dennehy), who demand loyalty at all costs.
Arm does what he’s told, especially whenever Paudi’s egomaniacal nephew, Dymphna (Barry Keoghan), who desperately wants his uncle’s respect, demands it. Theirs is a virulently co-dependent relationship; it’s obvious Arm could break the snot-nosed Dymphna in half if he had the mind to. But compliance seems the better choice, especially since Arm wants to ensure his ex Ursula (Niamh Algar) and their 5-year-old autistic son Jack (Kiljan Moroney) stay as safe as possible in what is increasingly proving to be a no-exit existence. Some meager respite is provided, per the title, at a horse farm that employs Ursula’s current boyfriend, Rob (Anthony Welsh), whom Arm, despite a number of TKO glares, slowly comes to respect.
Despite the pervasive aura of despair, the dramatic stakes feel rather low and play out — particularly via the blood-soaked road-to-redemption climax — in the droningly soporific ways of many an indie. The part-Eno/part-Reznor electronic score by Blanck Mass additionally solidifies the sense that we’re watching a depressive ambient album in motion. Fortunately, Jarvis is a tremendously compelling screen presence, moving through scenes — one of them an emotionally taxing, minutes-long single take — in much the same wounded-animal vein as Aden Young’s wrongfully convicted ex-con Daniel Holden on the Sundance TV series Rectify. He single-handedly elevates a film that would otherwise be a fest-circuit footnote.
Production companies: DMC Film, Element Pictures
Cast: Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, David Wilmot, Kiljan Moroney
Director: Nick Rowland
Screenwriter: Joe Murtagh
Executive producers: Michael Fassbender, Conor McCaughan, Andrew Lowe, Ed Guiney, Sam Lavender, Daniel Battsek, Sue Bruce-Smith, Will Clarke, Mike Runagall, Celine Haddad, Sarah Dillon
Producer: Daniel Emmerson
Cinematography: Piers McGrail
Editing: Nicolas Chaudeurge, Matthew Tabern
Production designer: Damien Creagh
Sound: Matis Rei
Score: Blanck Mass
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
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