Douglas “Arm” Armstrong seems so much larger than everyone else in Calm With Horses. That’s partly due to actor Cosmo Jarvis’ hulking aura, sure, but it’s director Nick Rowland’s careful work in his debut that establishes the tone. We’re meant to buy the character as one who contains both violent menace and an almost painful tenderness. To its credit, the film applies both when needed, and never quite to excess.
In the mould of Rocky before him, Douglas has gone from boxing to enforcing for a small-time criminal outfit. He’s absorbed into the Devers’ household by the fast-talking Dympna (a superb Barry Keoghan) thanks to the bond of loyalty that keeps everyone in line. Trouble elsewhere in the ranks, however, runs them afoul of the men in charge (including a deranged Ned Dennehy), which forces some hard choices. It’s a simple tension, born of blood, yet the script from Joe Murtagh allows for great swells of character within its familiar beats. Coupled with Rowland’s sharp compositional eye—one comfortable in a noisy club, a quiet den, or a car chase—the film reaches an easy gallop. (The moody score from Blanck Mass helps too.)
It’s rare for a film like Calm With Horses to feel new. The title’s horse metaphor is apparent; the film’s opening narration readily fills in or sets up the emotional blanks; there’s no real mystery, yet the film remains gripping throughout. The rawness of the performance from Jarvis is to thank there, making a mountain of a man seem like, well, just a man.