Gritty Irish thriller Calm With Horses a surprisingly emotional, human film

David Roy reviews new Irish indie crime thriller Calm With Horses, adapted from author Colin Barrett's novella of the same name in his award-winning short story collection Young Skins

Barry Keoghan and Cosmo Jarvis in Calm With Horses

GRITTY yet moving Irish crime drama Calm With Horses marks an auspicious feature debut for director Nick Rowland, who delivers a visceral and emotionally gripping film version of a story first told by Co Mayo author Colin Barrett in his award winning short story collection Young Skins.

Screenwriter Joseph Murtagh has skilfully adapted and fleshed out this affecting tale of a brutish ex-boxer whose exploitative relationship with a crime family in a fading west of Ireland town begins to spiral out of control.

Cosmo Jarvis is exceptional in the lead role of Douglas 'Arm' Armstrong, pugilist turned pulveriser of anyone the notorious drug-dealing Devers clan take a disliking to. However, while the hulking Arm is certainly free with his fists whenever his buddy/boss Dympna (Barry Keoghan) commands him, he's really something of a gentle giant who audiences will quickly start to root for in spite of his capacity for bone-crunching violence.

Arm's tender side is to the fore whenever he's around his young autistic son, Jack (Kiljan Moroney) and estranged ex-girlfriend Ursula (Niamh Algar): however, her hatred for the Devers combined with an overwhelming desire to seek a better life elsewhere places extra strain on what is already a frayed relationship.

Ursula detests the disrespectful and emotionally manipulative way the crime family treat Arm, letting on that he's actually an integral part of their grubby clan just so they can deploy his muscle at will, while at the same time openly mocking him as a "half-wit". Dympna often speaks to his enforcer as you would a pet dog, complete with directional tongue clicking – and, as it turns out, this is one family who shouldn't be allowed anywhere near domestic animals.

However, Arm is more self-aware than he lets on. His character might be a hulking screen presence whose fists often do his talking, yet Jarvis convincingly conveys the brooding ex-boxer's deepening inner turmoil via a masterfully controlled performance which is all subtle facial reactions and body language. Arm's fists and teeth might be perpetually clenched and gritted, but his watchful, wary eyes are open portals to a bruised and battered soul within. Despite his circumstances, Arm still longs to find peace among those he loves the most.

The tension mounts as the Devers' increasingly horrific demands threaten to pull Arm further and further away from any chance of re-connecting with his real family – and as he reaches the decisive moment where his actions will become irreversible, audiences will find themselves on the edge of their seats, willing him to do the right thing.

Indeed, for all its gritty crime thriller stylings – beatings, shootings, drug abuse and even an excellent car chase – Calm With Horses is ultimately a surprisingly emotional, human film. Rowland and his director of photography Piers McGrail also captialise on the bleak beauty of the Atlantic coast landscape, while superb era-blurring production design gives the film a stylishly stuck-in-the-past vibe that compliments the story at hand.

The director has assembled an excellent ensemble cast for his feature debut; Keoghan is great as a youngster dug deep into the thug lifestyle which belies his obvious intelligence, a rheumy-eyed Ned Dennehy gives good 'hair-trigger crime boss' as the Devers' psychotic patriarch and only occasionally strays into scenery chewing territory, David Wilmot expertly treads the fine line between hardman and coward as Hector, the Devers' shifty second-in-command who's pushing Arm to do things he can never undo, while Niamh Alger shines as the strong, independently-minded Ursula who despairs at what's happening to the man she used to dote on.

All in, this compelling Irish indie is definitely worth braving Covid-19 to catch on the big screen.

Rating: 9/10

CALM WITH HORSES (15, 101mins), drama/crime. Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, David Wilmot, Anthony Welsh, Ryan McParland. Director: Nick Rowland

:: Calm With Horses is showing at QFT Belfast from Friday, book now at

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