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Tension simmers throughout Calm With Horses as nearly every interaction runs the risk of erupting into violence, every scene on the brink of exploding into blood and brutality. It’s through the looming threat of merciless beatings and even outright murder that the Devers wield power and command respect over Glanbeigh, the fictional Mayo town. Director Nick Rowland never over-indulges in this violence but permeates his debut with an ominous tone that relies on its ever present threat.
Arm (Cosmo Jarvis, Nocturnal) works for the crime family as an enforcer and while he’s not a Dever by blood, he’s treated as one in return for his loyalty. Well, that’s what they tell him anyway. In reality, they treat him less than human, more like a ferocious pitbull and are always ready to unleash the savage on anyone that steps out of line.
He’s a retired boxer, resigned to a life of violence after killing an opponent in the ring, another cinematic portrayal of tortured masculinity that Jarvis captures in a suitably raw performance. He is a quiet man, minus the romanticism of John Wayne, who takes no joy in his role, delivering brutal beatings in a matter of fact, detached fashion.
Meanwhile Dymphna (Barry Keoghan), the youngest Dever who’s left in charge of their troubled enforcer, sees spontaneous violent outbursts as a fair response to the slightest sign of disrespect, a loose cannon confident that he can get away with whatever he wants thanks to his family name. Despite his smaller frame compared to Jarvis, Keoghan is convincing as the more dangerous of the two. He portrays a different version of cinematic masculinity, less tortured more desperate and performative. It’s scary all the same.
Redemption for Arm lies outside the crime family in his own. He has an autistic son with his ex-girlfriend (Niamh Algar) and while he might be a compassionate father, he can’t meet his son’s needs. He wants to help pay for a school that can.
Optimism creeps in during quieter moments with his family and interrupts the taxing dread. The titular horse scene suggests Arm could find peace and escape the dangerous spiral into crime, that maybe a man’s worth isn’t measured in violence. Unfortunately, Dymphna seems intent on pulling him away from his actual family and further into the Devvers.
Calm With Horses boils the generic crime drama to its core elements and makes for an effective, raw noir. It eschews the predictable ending for something quieter and more character focused that can’t help but feel a bit anticlimactic. It’s an assured, thrilling debut that builds to a bang but settles for a whimper.