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New to Netflix - CALM WITH HORSES

calm with horses review
A former boxer turned mob enforcer makes enemies of his employers.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Nick Rowland

Starring: Cosmo Jarvis, Niamh Algar, Barry Keoghan, Ned Dennehy, David Wilmot


calm with horses poster


Based around a big dumb lug who forms enough sense to turn against the men who made him a monster, Nick Rowland's feature debut, the rural Ireland set thriller Calm with Horses, owes a debt to the Frankenstein mythos. Perhaps it's fitting then that the film feels like it's been crudely stitched together from the cadavers of a dozen other crime movies.

calm with horses review

The monster here is Douglas "The Arm" Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis), a punch drunk former boxer who much like John Wayne in The Quiet Man, quit a life of pugilism after killing a man in the ring. Unlike Wayne's character, Douglas hasn't left his violent ways behind him, acting as a strongarm enforcer for a local criminal family, the Devers. In the opening scene we watch as he brutally beats Fannigan (Liam Carney), an elderly man accused of assaulting a 13-year-old female member of the Devers clan. When Rowland cuts to a close-up of blood splashing over a piece of embroidery carrying the message "Only God sees your conscience," it becomes all too clear that the filmmaking here is as blunt as the trauma Douglas inflicts on his victims.

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Douglas receives his orders directly from Dympna (Barry Keoghan), a wiry young, pill popping troublemaker who enjoys lording his power over the locals, knowing Douglas has his back at all times. When Dympna is ordered by the family's dual patriarchs, Paudi (Ned Dennehy) and Hector (David Wilmot), to finish off Fannigan permanently, he of course entrusts Douglas with the job. But inspired by a reconnection with his ex-girlfriend, Ursula (Niamh Algar), with whom he fathered an autistic child, Douglas is seeking a way out from under the Devers. Can he leave the family without drawing their wrath?

calm with horses review

If you've seen any crime drama you know the answer to that question. Aside from its Irish setting, which might seem novel to viewers in some parts of the world, there's little that makes Calm with Horses stand on its own hind legs. The title refers to a brief moment in which Douglas visits the equestrian centre Ursula works at, where he enjoys a moment of relaxation after mounting a horse. At this point it seems the film is set to join the growing canon of recent movies in which troubled men bond with our equine friends (The Rider, The Mustang, Lean on Pete), but that subplot fails to develop.

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Much like its protagonist, Calm with Horses struggles to forge its own path, too indebted to a host of better, and some worse, movies. It can't decide if it's a gritty drama or a Guy Ritchie-esque comic caper, and when it's imitating the latter it's positively cringey (a Tarantino aping discussion of Perry Mason and Ironside is a real eye-roller). At times it strays into the unintentionally chortle inducing territory of Taffin, the 1988 Pierce Brosnan thriller that has developed a cult following for its laughable transposing of American crime tropes onto small town Ireland.

calm with horses review

What's all the more frustrating is the level of talent involved in front of, if not behind, the camera here. British actor Jarvis does a surprisingly good west of Ireland brogue, and he brings real presence to what is essentially a cookie cutter stereotype. The movie boasts one genuinely great scene, a meeting between Douglas and Ursula in a diner. Jarvis and Algar share a comfortable chemistry that's utterly convincing, and in one wonderful character moment, Douglas takes the pickles from Ursula and his son's burgers and adds them to his own. Ursula doesn't acknowledge his action, as she's probably grown accustomed to it in their past life together. This subtle gesture speaks volumes about Douglas and Ursula's connection. It's a shame such insight and nuance is sorely lacking in the rest of the film.

Calm with Horses is on Netflix UK now.




2020 movie reviews