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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.

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Non-Review Review: American Animals

“To do this thing would take extraordinary effort,” observers Warren Lipka of his fiendish heist scheme in American Animals. “Not ordinary effort.”

Written and directed by Bart Layton, American Animals is a blend of documentary and dramatisation. It explores the true story of the effort by four young men to steal a collection of precious books from the Library of Transylvania, a scheme that went disastrously and spectacularly wrong. Adopting a style that recalls Bernie or a slightly more grounded I, Tonya, Layton slices interviews with the real-life criminals into a narrative reconstruction of the attempted crime. The results are intriguing, occasionally veering into an exploration of the malleability of memory and the limits of personal perspective.

Up to their old tricks.

At the same time, American Animals is very much engaged with a masculine middle-class malaise. A recurring motif of the film has various figures from around the four criminals pause to reflect upon the character of these young men. “They were good kids,” various talking heads assert over the course of the documentary, talking fondly about their childhoods and their schoolwork and their aspirations. The four young men at the heart of American Animals did not plan (and botch) a heist because they were bad kids or because they needed the money. They did not act out of desperation or anger.

Instead, American Animals suggests that the characters enacted this ambitious and absurd scheme out of a sense of boredom, out of a desire to escape the mundanity of their everyday lives, to do something “extraordinary” to transcend their so-called “ordinary” lives.

Model citizens.

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Non-Review Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is cold, clinical and Kubrick. Perhaps too much so in places. It is also mesmerising and haunting.

“Do you understand?” Martin asks a confused Steven towards the climax. “It’s a metaphor. My example. It’s metaphorical.” As one might expect from director Yorgos Lanthimos, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is very much couched in symbolism and metaphor. As the title implies, a reference casually suggested by a minor character quite late in the film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer might be best understood as a modern update of Iphigenia in Aulis, the tragedy of the Greek general Agamemnon who was forced to sacrifice his daughter to a vengeful god.

The man upstairs.

However, that is an incomplete prism through which The Killing of a Sacred Deer might be understood. The tale of a patriarch faced with an impossible choice to protect his family from a sinister outside force, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a study of masculinity and responsibility. The film is an interrogation of sex and power through a surreal lens, skewed through psychological horror and pitch black comedy. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is never entirely abstract, but it is very rarely literal. It exists in a surreal and uncomfortable space that enhances the audience’s unease.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an uncanny piece of cinema, an ethereal moral fable that lingers long after its resolution.

Putting the matter to bed.

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