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Non-Review Review: Calm With Horses

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Calm With Horses is a solid, atmospheric crime drama.

There are very few surprises in Nick Rowland’s West of Ireland gangster film. The plot is fairly straightforward, focusing on a muscle-bound enforced for a local crime family who finds himself torn between the man that he wants to be and the tool that his employers see him to be. There are familiar dreams of escape, and those inevitable consequences that ripple outwards from a single morally-justified-but-strategically-stupid decision towards inevitable disaster. Thematically, Calm With Horses belongs to that familiar genre of violent men trying to live with their violence. Even the metaphors are familiar.

That said, Calm With Horses benefits from strong execution. The film received funding as part of the WRAP initiative, encouraging film production on the western coast of the island. Rowland skillfully leverages the film’s location work in Clare and Galway, providing his moody character study with a rich sense of atmosphere. In its strongest moments, Calm With Horses taps into a lingering melancholy that suggests a desolation extending beyond the rugged rural landscapes. There is a sense that these characters are as stark and haunted as the landscapes that they wander.

Calm With Horses doesn’t really offer any new twists on a familiar genre, but elevates its familiar trappings through the execution.

“You know, they say dogs take on the traits of their owners,” muses Douglas “Arm” Armstrong, the boxer-turned-hired-muscle for the infamous Devers family. This winds up being a major recurring theme within Calm With Horses, a film saturated with animal imagery. Douglas’ son Jack is freaked out by the wolves on television, but soothed by the horses at the yard. Paudi Devers keeps two impressive looking dogs chained up outside his own work yard. When one of them accidentally eats a wasp, Paudi asks Douglas to help him put the poor creature out of his misery.

Of course, all of this animal imagery is in service of more than just itself. Calm With Horses repeatedly wonders whether Douglas is anything more than an animal to the Devers family. Their young son Dympna calls Douglas to heel like he’s summoning a wayward puppy, clicking his tongue impatiently. After one particularly harrowing sequence, in which all his hopes and dreams come crashing down, Douglas is left looking at the bite mark on his hand, a suggesting that he is not as far removed from the animals as it might hope.

Indeed, Douglas arguably sets the inevitable third act chaos in motion with an act of humanism, demonstrating how hostile his world is to anything resembling humanity. This is not a subtle statement of theme for a crime drama. After all, countless crime dramas have likened the impulsive and unrestrained urges of criminality as fundamentally bestial, but then Calm With Horses is not a particularly subtle piece of film. It is at once endearing and just a little cliché that Calm With Horses chose to name its central muscle Armstrong. Not only does it facilitate the suitably impressive boxer-turned-gangster nom de guerre of “the Arm.”

There are very few surprises in Calm With Horses. Indeed, most viewers familiar with the mechanics of the crime genre will be able to trace the outline from the opening scenes, with Douglas’ voiceover relating how “loyalty made you part of the family” among the Devers while struggling to reconnect with the estranged mother of his own son. Ursula plans to take Jack with her to Cork, raising questions about where Douglas might fit in the grand scheme of things. Will Douglas choose between his actual family and the criminals who have enlisted him? More to the point, can he choose?

The plotting and characterisation of Calm With Horses is fairly standard. Douglas is a fundamentally good soul who has found himself in a tough situation, and lacks the awareness to get himself out. Ursula is at once exhausted by Douglas and still harbours some (admittedly buried) affection for him. Dympna is the young screw-up heir apparent to a criminal empire without the viciousness or the wherewithal to run the organisation, but with enough entitlement and resentment to make him actively dangerous to anybody who might cross his path. This is all fairly standard stuff, drawn in fairly broad terms.

To be fair to Calm With Horses, the film does have a few key advantages that help to elevate it above standard crime movie fair. The casting is pretty good across the board. Cosmo Jarvis has undergone a remarkable physical transformation to play the former boxer, and brings the vulnerability and quiet dignity that Douglas needs. Niamh Algar continues to be one of the most interesting young Irish actors working, and invests a great deal of humanity in an underwritten part. Barry Keoghan suggests a much greater sense of complexity and contradiction to the spoiled scion than the script afford him.

More than that, the western locations add a vivid sense of place to Calm With Horses. Rowland’s direction captures one particular vision of the West of Ireland, recognisable to many young men without a trade or profession. Calm With Horses unfolds a broken down corner of the world, one populated by abandoned railway yards populated by train carriages that aren’t going anywhere and lingering in the shadow of stark grey mountains reaching up towards an indeterminate grey mist. Even the pubs and nightclubs seem small and pathetic. The wealthiest character in the film lives completely cut off from the world.

This starkness adds a lot of character to Calm With Horses, and adds a richness that layers some complexity and nuance atop a generic crime story. Calm With Horses is a fairly standard crime story, but one told much better than it needs to be.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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