Calm With Horses

Calm With Horses (aka The Shadow Of Violence) (2019)

Calm With Horses first published by

“That’s not you.”

These words are stated – twice by different characters – to Douglas (Cosmo Jarvis), the protagonist of Calm With Horses (aka The Shadow of Violence). Douglas indeed comes with a brutal inner conflict. In a voiceover that opens the film, he states: “I’m told I was a violent child, usually to meself – whether it was knocking my head against the wall or mauling at my own fingers till they bled. I’m the one who got in my way, it was fair game.” 

This internal division is reflected in the different ways that he is addressed. For while Ursula (Niamh Algar) – his ex-partner and the mother of his autistic son Jack (Killian Moroney) – always uses Douglas’ given name, his adoptive family call him ‘Arm’. It may sound an affectionate nickname, but it reflects how Douglas has been instrumentalised by Dympna Devers (Barry Keoghan), who together with his uncles Paudi (a terrifying Ned Dennehy) and Hector (David Wilmot), controls all the drugs in this small clifftop Irish town. For all that Dympna calls Douglas his ‘bro’, he uses the hulking ex-boxer as mere muscle (hence the nickname), and treats him like an obedient ‘lapdog’.  

“Most people want to stay on the right side of the Devers family,” says Douglas, although this sounds, significantly, like ‘the Devil’s family’ in his drawled pronunciation. “I’m what you meet if you ever find yourself on the wrong side.” At the beginning of Calm With Horses, we see him meting out a savage punishment beating to Fannigan (Liam Carney), a Devers associate accused of fiddling with Dympna’s 14-year-old sister at a party. A different version of what went down and who was responsible will be implied (without ever quite being stated) by the film, but what is important in this scene is the way that Fannigan stoically awaits what he knows is coming to him anyway. For Nick Rowland’s first feature, adapted by Joseph Murtagh from Colin Barrett’s short story of the same name, is a parochial crime saga that comes laden with a sense of noirish doom. Fannigan is all too aware of the cards that fate has dealt him, and although he can delay the coming retribution, he is unable ultimately to escape it – and that fatalistic dynamic will extend to our tragic hero Douglas, whose departure from the right side of the Devers family to, well, the right side of morality will have inevitable consequences.

  The Devers openly define their allegiances not by blood, but by loyalty – and Douglas, who is not known for his reflective abilities, cannot see that the loyalty which they demand goes only one way. “It’s servitude,” as Ursula comments. “This isn’t your family.” Meanwhile Douglas – brooding, largely uncommunicative, capable of raging destruction – struggles to maintain his connection with a young son who is in fact a lot like his father. Douglas is calmed as much as Jack by the therapeutic horses which Ursula’s new love interest Rob (Anthony Welsh) manages – and although, in a painful scene, Douglas tells his screaming son to “just be fucking normal”, the possibility of a regular life seems far more remote for Douglas himself, whose normality is rooted in horrific violence. Both Jack and Ursula have a chance at a better future in a different environment – and it is Douglas’ gradual acceptance of this, rather than keeping his loved ones trapped in the same way that others keep him on a short leash, which reveals deep down who he really is, or at least can be. 

Ironically sharing his name with the Trojan hero of Homer’s Iliad, Hector too longs to break free. Recently, he has been seeing the elderly widow Maire (Bríd Brennan) who is said to be sitting on a fortune. All Hector’s family and criminal associates assume that Hector is a ‘gold digger’, merely fleecing Maire for her cash. Dympna, too. and his ‘loyal skins’ are planning to rob her themselves. Yet the film suggests an alternative possibility: that Maire, in all her refined respectability, represents Hector’s own longing to escape his criminal circumstances, and his hope for the normal life that he can never really have. Douglas, too, cannot escape himself – but perhaps, in the end, that is not such a bad thing. 

Playing out like Miller’s Crossing (1990) – but where the main character is a ‘halfwit’ goon rather than a calculating plotter – or like Dogman (2018) – only with the menacing giant rather than his diminutive friend the protagonist – Calm With Horses boasts an extraordinarily contained central performance from Jarvis, and a strong sense of place that brings new, real tensions to old gangland tropes. This Irish noir is an arrestingly assured debut for Rowland. 

Summary: Nick Rowland’s debut is an Irish gangland noir where the past is as impossible to escape as the self.

© Anton Bitel