Calm with Horses (2019) ☆☆☆(3/4): A fatalistic Irish crime drama about one ex-boxer

“Calm with Horses”, which was released in US as “The Shadow of Violence”, is a fatalistic crime drama which virtually announces its ill-fated hero’s doom to us right from the beginning. No matter how much he tries, he is bound to be mired more in a mean and dirty world of crime and violence, and he somehow senses that to some degree as reflected by his phlegmatic narration during the opening scene, where he commits another brutal act of violence as ordered.

As following his recent trouble, the movie lets us get to know more about Douglas “Arm” Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis), an ex-boxer who has worked as the chief enforcer of a crime family in his rural Irish town. There was a time when he had a promising professional boxer career, but he subsequently quit due to some unfortunate incident, and that was how he came to work under his close friend Dymphna (Barry Keoghan), a cocky lad who is one of the main members of the aforementioned criminal organization.

The trouble in question was caused by a very unpleasant incident which happened during one night when Dymphna and other members of the criminal organization had a drinking party together. While almost everyone got asleep thanks to lots of alcohol and drug, one of the members happened to enter the bedroom belonging to Dymphna’s adolescent sister, and it seemed that this guy did something quite wrong to her. Dymphna’s two bosses, who are also his uncles, are certainly angry about this incident, but they also see that they must take care of it as soon as possible for protecting their criminal business, so they order Dymphna to do the job on behalf of them.

However, Dymphna, who turns out to be quite weak-willed behind all these casual swaggers of his, hesitates as facing how serious the situation really is. What his uncles demand him to do looks beyond his ability and guts, but his uncles keep pressuring on him day by day, so he has no choice but to force Arm to do the job instead of him, while also emphasizing to him that their survival comes first above all else.

In case of Arm, this quiet and reticent dude also becomes quite conflicted as being pressured by his criminal organization. While he has not had much compunction about beating people as ordered by his friend, what he is demanded to do is a very different thing to say the least, and he comes to agonize over what he should do under this difficult circumstance, where he will face a serious consequence in one way or another no matter what he chooses to do in the end.

Meanwhile, the movie also focuses on Arm’s estranged relationship with his ex-girlfriend Ursula (Niamh Algar), who has raised their young autistic son with her mother since she left him. Ursula and her son are probably the only persons Arm really cares about besides Dymphna, but Ursula is considering leaving the town for providing a better environment for her son, and Arm is not so pleased to learn of that. He tries to be a good father for their son, but he is pretty clumsy as your average inarticulate macho guy, and, most of all, he does not understand their son’s autism at all from the start.

At least, there comes a little unexpected sensitive moment for him later in the story. At a local horse training farm where Ursula and her son often visit, a horse trainer, who has incidentally been quite close to Ursula. suggests a bit of horse ride to Arm, and Arm’s mood gets brightened up a little as riding a horse for a while in front of Ursula and their son.

However, Arm soon finds himself getting himself into a bigger trouble as the screenplay by Joseph Murtagh, which is based on Colin Barrett’s short story of the same name, takes an expected plot turn, and director Nick Rowland accordingly increases the level of tension as required. For example, there is a gut-wrenching moment when Arm and Dymphna belatedly come to realize what can possibly happen to either of them, and that naturally puts lots of strain onto their supposedly strong friendship.

While what follows next is predictable to the core, Rowland’s competent direction keeps things rolling toward the inevitable narrative point, and the movie is also supported well by its main cast members. Cosmo Jarvis, who has been mainly known for his musician career and previously drew our attention for playing a crucial supporting role in “Lady Macbeth” (2016), is impressive in his effective embodiment of his character’s brutality and vulnerability, and the other main cast members around him hold each own place well around him. While Barry Keoghan, who has been more prominent since his chilling breakout turn in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017), balances his character well between arrogance and cowardice, Niamh Algar brings some warmth as one of a few bright spots in the story, and David Wilmot and Ned Dennehy are well-cast as two crime bosses who are very different from each other but will do anything for protecting their business.

Overall, “Calm with Horses” is a pretty familiar genre piece, but it is fairly engaging thanks to Rowland’s competent direction. As a seasoned moviegoer, I just observed its story and characters from the distance as knowing well where it is going, but its good elements including Jarvis’ strong performance still held my attention nonetheless, so I recommend it with some reservation.

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