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Toronto Film Review: ‘Calm With Horses’

An ex-boxer is caught between family obligations and criminal associations in this gritty West Ireland-set tale.

Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, David Wilmot, Kiljan Tyr Moroney, Brid Brennan, Simone Kirby, Anthony Welsh.

1 hour 41 minutes

Films set in West Ireland often have a tourist board-certified feel, selling the scenery and quaintness in ways designed to make you ring up your travel agent (if those still existed). But no one will be booking their next vacay on the basis of “Calm With Horses,” which sports some pleasant landscapes but populates them with characters you’d wisely cross the entire island to avoid.

Nick Rowland’s first feature is a gritty crime drama whose protagonists’ small-town lives are full of woes more typically associated with urbia, and whose hero is a dim-bulb bruiser whose redemption, if any, is going to come hard. While perhaps not distinctive thematically or stylistically enough to score much theatrical export interest, this is an engrossing tale that should do reasonably well in home-format placements, and give a definite leg up to the director and his principal collaborators.

Drawn from a novella by Colin Barrett (published in the collection “Young Skins”), Joe Murtagh’s screenplay begins with thick-necked, hulking Arm (Cosmo Jarvis of “Lady Macbeth”) being dispatched to pummel senseless a codger who’s gotten on the bad side of his employers. Arm doesn’t have a formal job, but he has bosses: pretty much the entire Devers clan, a dismal multigenerational lot of dealers and petty thugs who took in the ex-boxer after his pro career ended in disgrace. He even lives with them, superficially accepted as part of “the family” but also aware of being a “hired hand.”

Arm’s knack for violence makes him their de facto enforcer, though he’s less of a loose cannon than best mate Dympna (Barry Keoghan), the sort of tosser who sucker-punches over nothing, and gets his muscle-bound pal loaded on drugs in order to convince him to do worse things he’s too cowardly to do himself.

That association is a big reason why Arm is no longer much in the life of former girlfriend Ursula (Niamh Algar) or their child together, 5-year-old Jack (Kiljan Tyr Moroney). He’s fond of them both and earnestly means to be a more reliable father. But hanging around with the likes of Dympna, that isn’t likely happening. Arm also has trouble summoning the patience to deal with his son’s autism, which has kept the boy nonverbal apart from frequent, unnerving screaming fits. Ursula is mulling a new life that would involve moving to Cork, where Jack could access the kind of special-needs school nowhere near their current backwater coastal burg. But that will take money, and Arm is ambivalent about helping fund the exit of these loved ones from his orbit — though even he acknowledges that might be best for them.

A chain of events is set in motion by a Devers family friend molesting one of their teenage daughters during a drunken house party. It’s determined harsh justice should be meted out to save the clan’s honor, yet of course it falls to non-member Arm to do the dirty work. As ready as he is with his fists, however, Arm isn’t a psycho like some of his adopted family — he balks at taking a life. When news of that “betrayal” gets back to Dympna, even-crazier Paudi (Ned Dennehy) and their upscale but still ruthless relation Hector (David Wilmot), Arm finds himself in deadly conflict with his erstwhile benefactors.

“Calm With Horses” (named after the one activity that reliably settles wee Jack) is tightly paced, albeit like a drama, not an action thriller. Rowland devotes at least as much attention to Arm’s effortfully well-intentioned relationships with his ex and son as he does to the criminal mayhem interspersed throughout.

Jarvis’ performance creates a sympathetic Neanderthal — we soon realize the best he can hope for is to leave others out of the mess he probably won’t be able to extract himself from. Likewise, Algar deftly inhabits a local type just smart enough to grasp a way out, while Keoghan and Dennehy are vividly credible as two bottom-dwellers of the gene pool.

Not going in the material’s potentially noirish direction stylistically, the location-shot film has a fairly bright, often outdoorsy look that underlines the characters’ disconnect from their uplifting surroundings. While it holds attention throughout, “Calm With Horses” grows a bit more conventional toward the end as it edges into revenge-thriller terrain, with a slightly attenuated classic “telephone scene” to reinforce Arm’s essential pathos before climactic blood gets spilt. If the overall narrative arc is less than inspired, however, the milieu and personalities depicted do have real character.

Tech and design contributions are solid, though the original score by Blanck Mass (i.e., Brit electronic composer Benjamin John Power) grows a bit overpowering.

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Toronto Film Review: 'Calm With Horses'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Discovery), Sept. 10, 2019. Running time: 101 MIN.

Production: (U.K.-Ireland) A DMC Film, Element Pictures and Film4 production. (Int'l sales: Altitude Film Sales, London.) Producer: Daniel Emmerson. Executive producers: Michael Fassbender, Conor McCaughan, Andrew Lowe, Ed Guiney, Sam Lavender, Daniel Battsek, Sue Bruce-Smith, Will Clarke, Mike Runagall, Celine Haddad, Sarah Dillon. Co-producers: Rory Gilmartin, Kate Glover.

Crew: Director: Nick Rowland. Screenplay: Joe Murtagh, based on the short story by Colin Barrett. Camera (color, widescreen): Piers McGrail. Editors: Nicolas Chaudeurge, Matthew Tabern. Music: Blanck Mass.

With: Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, David Wilmot, Kiljan Tyr Moroney, Brid Brennan, Simone Kirby, Anthony Welsh.

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