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Inventively adapted from a story in Colin Barrett’s Young Skins collection, this striking directorial feature debut from Nick Rowland (who was Bafta-nominated for his 2014 short Slap) is an immersive tale of tortured masculinity and divided loyalties that pulls the viewer right into the raging bull mindset of its haunted protagonist. Set in rural Ireland, and boasting something of the “West Country western” flavour of Sam Peckinpah’s Cornish epic Straw Dogs, it’s a fable of failed fathers and false families, unflinching in its depiction of grim realities, but laced with a redemptive transcendence that reminded me of Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete, or Chloé Zhao’s The Rider.
Cosmo Jarvis (unrecognisable from his magnetic turn in Lady Macbeth) delivers a performance of few words but hugely eloquent physicality as Douglas “Arm” Armstrong, combining the powerhouse presence of Matthias Schoenaerts in Bullhead with the broken-boxer vulnerability of Jason Patric in After Dark, My Sweet. Having been traumatised – both physically and mentally – as a brutal youth in the ring, Arm took what looked like an escape route, becoming an enforcer for the notorious Devers clan. He calls them “my family”, but he’s more like their attack dog, answering to the clicks and whistles (“there’s a good boy”) of Barry Keoghan’s insidiously bullying Dympna.
We meet Arm delivering a gruelling beating that will notably fail to satisfy the Deverses’ blood lust, with fatal consequences. Yet beneath the knuckles and muscles, Arm (who was “a violent child”) is riddled with insecurities, particularly concerning his ex-girlfriend Ursula (Niamh Algar) and their young son, Jack (Kiljan Tyr Moroney), a five-year-old with autism whose equine-therapy sessions inspire the film’s enigmatic title. Ursula wants to move to Cork, where she has found a school that can attend to Jack’s needs. But Arm is in no hurry to aid their departure, still clinging to his dreams of becoming a good father.
Juxtaposing flashes of lens-flared sunlight with empty daytime greys and hellish nocturnal black and red hues, Calm With Horses uses a bold colour palette to accentuate the quasi-mythical themes of its seemingly down-to-earth story. There’s something genuinely demonic about Ned Dennehy’s Paudi, the foul red-eyed apparition at the heart of the Devers family who becomes Arm’s tormentor-in-chief. Yet like Ben Wheatley, Rowland places such horrors cheek-by-jowl with absurdist kitchen-sink comedy, with Hector (David Wilmot) channelling the spirit of Father Ted’s Dermot Morgan as he attempts to ingratiate himself with a wealthy widow, while keeping inconvenient familial nastiness at a polite distance.
As for Arm, his life is divided between the unfeeling brutality of his job and the clumsy empathy that is starting to make him pull his punches. A scene in which he struggles helplessly to calm one of Jack’s screaming fits suggests that he has no handle on his son’s experience, yet it also chimes with an opening voiceover suggesting that father and son have long been locked in the same struggle. No wonder Arm winds up briefly riding the horse that has helped to calm Jack, suggesting that this destructive cycle – this legacy of attempting to make sense of the world through violence – could perhaps be broken.
“This isn’t you,” Arm is told as he does the Deverses’ bidding, a phrase echoed in Ursula’s heartbreaking declaration that “you remind me of you sometimes … you know, I miss you”. Buoyed by Joe Murtagh’s screenplay, which keeps the warring elements of the narrative elegantly balanced throughout, the excellent ensemble cast create a complex emotional ecosystem through which our troubled antihero stumbles in search of his identity.
Cinematographer Piers McGrail contrasts broad landscape vistas with claustrophobic interiors, and even injects a Friedkin-esque sense of reckless energy into a down-and-dirty car chase, which unexpectedly pumps up the third act. Meanwhile, a superb electronic score by Blanck Mass (aka Benjamin John Power) gets right under the skin of the drama, lending an edge of frayed distortion to melancholy melodies, capturing the film’s blend of roughness and innocence. Like Daniel Lopatin’s pulsing accompaniment to the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, the score for Calm With Horses seems to inject itself into the bloodstream of the central characters, helping us to see the world through their eyes, and share their often fractured experiences. Matis Rei’s supple sound design completes the picture, woozily weaving in and out of the score, leading us through these shifting moods with heady ease.
Source: The Guardian
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