Confidently slapping the “right” or “wrong” label on a decision is nice, but more often than not, the choices we make are riddled with complexities that only the individual right smack in the middle of them can fully process. Calm with Horses gives you a taste of just that. The movie kicks off strong, introducing its protagonist as a good guy who’s gone down a bad path and must change his ways, but over the course of the film, director Nick Rowland elegantly explores the escalating predicament he’s in in a way that does reaffirm that initial assessment, but with the added weight of an abundance of major complications with no easy answers.
The movie stars Cosmo Jarvis as Douglas Armstrong, also known as “Arm.” Why? Because he’s a former boxer who now works as an enforcer for the Devers family and their drug dealing operation in a small town right along the Atlantic in Ireland. He works closely with Dympna Devers (Barry Keoghan) who often reminds Douglas that they’re so close, they’re family. As far as blood relatives go, Douglas also has a five-year-old son named Jack he must look out for. Jack (Kiljan Moroney) is on the autism spectrum and his mother Ursula (Niamh Algar) is determined to get him into a special school. Trouble is, that school will cost them so even though Douglas knows his latest assignment from the Devers is going way too far, he feels the pressure to see it through for his son.
Douglas is the brooding beating heart of Calm With Horses. Between the intimate shooting style and Jarvis’ nuanced performance, Douglas is an immediately captivating and enigmatic character who encourages the viewer to fear him but also lean in a little closer in an effort to further understand what’s going on inside his head. Right at the start of the movie, Douglas beats a man to a bloody pulp with little to no hesitation. That probably doesn’t sound like the kind of guy you want to root for, but Jarvis has a very natural tinge of warmth that quickly conveys Douglas is doing what he does best, and it’s really all he knows.
Douglas makes one bad decision after the next in Calm With Horses but rather than lose faith in him as the film progresses, Jarvis expertly balances Douglas’ propensity for violence with his desperation to be a good father to keep you rooting for Douglas while also feeling the walls of his reality closing in around him. It’s easy for one to say, “Get it together. Stop doing the Devers’ dirty work and find a more lawful way to make a living.” But it’s not that simple and that’s something that Calm With Horses conveys extremely well, beginning with the arrangement between Douglas and Dympna.
Not that we need any additional proof that Keoghan is on another level and undoubtedly one to watch, but he excels in Calm With Horses in a way that broadens his own range while also enhancing the volatility of Douglas’ situation, further keeping you on your toes. Keoghan and Jarvis sell a very genuine allegiance, but it’s one-sided; Dympna is out for himself and there’s something disturbingly sweet about how he treats Douglas, almost like a puppy. Unforeseen challenges can rock the foundation of any relationship, but when you’ve got one where the cracks and concerns are this evident early on, it makes it especially nerve-racking waiting to see how they both respond.
While that part of Douglas’ life feels like a powder keg, Ursula brings some welcomed warmth and tough love into the picture in such a refreshing manner. Ursula and Douglas are no longer together; she’s in a serious relationship with someone new and screenwriter Joe Murtagh (adapting from a novella by Colin Barrett) navigates that lane between Douglas’ jealously and his eagerness to do good by her beautifully. You can see sparks of what they had while Ursula lovingly keeps Douglas at a distance, and it’s heartbreaking to see what he’s lost and know he can never get it back with the added understanding that Ursula is in a good place.
Calm With Horses is the tragic collision of major parts of Douglas’ life. It addresses the evolution of his association with Dympna, his relationship with Ursula and Jack, and also his own internal struggles in a way that lets you feel his potential to grow and be the person Ursula wants him to be while getting further tangled in this web he’s caught in courtesy of the Devers. It’s a dangerous mess of fear, expectation and love with the tiniest light at the end of the tunnel that Rowland and Jarvis have the viewer reaching for, right alongside Douglas.
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