▶︎ Calm with Horses is available to stream on BFI Player and most VOD platforms.

Nick Rowland’s first feature is adept enough dramatically to prompt sustained agony in watching its protagonist make the wrong decision. Most people around ex-boxer Douglas ‘Arm’ Armstrong take him for a none-too-smart thug-for-hire, yet a career-making performance from Cosmo Jarvis convinces the viewer that goodness lurks beneath his brawny frame. Instead of embracing his estranged partner and their troubled five-year-old son, however, he sticks by his criminal paymasters, who have him doing their dirtiest work for them. When his decency gets the better of him and he lets one pitiful assigned victim off the hook, we fear that his good deed will not go unpunished – and that pretending all has gone to murderous plan may not be his smartest move in the circumstances.

On one side, there’s a devoted mother and an innocent little boy with behavioural problems; on the other, lawless, drug-dealing villains with no loyalty outside their benighted family unit – an opposition so schematic it’s a wonder the film just about gets away with it. However, if the construction is as basic as a set of self-assembly furniture instructions, the movie’s deep investment in character and milieu makes it a worthwhile exercise for its debut helmer, strong cast and able crew.

The small-town west of Ireland settings look miserably unwelcoming, and cameraman Piers McGrail drains any tourist-board glow from the landscapes, making it all dismayingly believable that miscreants such as the Devers clan should lord it over this forlorn territory. For all that, we’re not exploring precisely social-realist terrain here but a heightened version thereof, even if pop-culture-slanted conversations seem too like a Tarantino-esque box-ticking exercise, and the blazing red filter over a tense nightclub scene feels too heavy on the cinematic highlighter pen.

In fact, it’s the gentler, more poetic moments that sing here, especially the scenes where the otherwise unsettled little boy has a soothing workout at the riding stables under health-service supervision. Niamh Algar excels in the slightly thankless part of the boy’s mother, nurturing him with a fierceness that speaks of strong emotions; meanwhile, American-born Jarvis copes admirably with the rural Irish accent and turns in a hugely touching display in an extended final-reel take, as self-knowledge beckons very late in the day. Elsewhere, Barry Keoghan, as two-faced underling Dympna, is even more slithery than he was in The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), while Ned Dennehy mines some secret realm of psychosis as scary Uncle Paudi. Functional as drama it might be, but engagingly ornamented.

Originally published: 16 March 2020