★★★★☆

“Violence,” – Douglas ‘The Arm’  muses – “is not always the work of hateful men. It’s just their way of making sense of the world”. Certainly, in director Nick Rowland’s astonishing, brutal feature debut, Calm with Horses, violence seems to be the only way of making sense of anything.

Arm was once a boxer rising through the ranks of local and county championships until his skills brought him into the notice of the criminal Devers family, who promised a quick buck and family protection in exchange for absolute loyalty. As their hired muscle, Arm tells us – or is it himself? – that the Devers care less about blood ties than that of unquestioning fealty.  Barry Keoghan is astonishing as the heir apparent to the Devers throne – a thoroughly nasty piece of work composed entirely of smirking posture and dark, scheming eyes. Manipulating Arm for his own ends, Devers keeps ex-girlfriend Ursula (Niamh Algar) at bay by convincing Arm that she wants to take away their autistic son.

There’s black humour to the way Arm is despatched to give Fannigan (Liam Carney) – a wayward associate who raped Devers’ teenage sister – a beating, amicably greeting him before the pummelling. A few frames cut from the shot as Arm kicks Fannigan through a coffee table concentrates the violence with an elliptical viciousness, but also emphasises the distance in Arm’s delivery of the Devers’ bidding. It’s implied that he doesn’t always understand what he’s doing, but there’s also a sense that he is also hiding the consequences of his violent acts from himself.

Arm’s history as a boxer has its cinematic roots heritage in Rocky and On the Waterfront. Jarvis’ lunkish Arm is certainly reminiscent of Sylvester Stallone’s hangdog boxer, but there’s a dangerous bitterness here far nastier than the darkest moments of either Rocky Balboa or Terry Malloy. This is most vividly painted in a nightclub at the film’s halfway point, when Devers, under pressure from family boss Paudi (Ned Denehy) to deal with Fannigan permanently, has plied Arm with coke and drink to convince him to do the deed.

In the nightclub, where Devers manipulates Arm, they encounter Ursula, out with trainee social worker Rob (Anthony Welsh). As Rob makes small talk, sickly green and red lights paint Arm’s face demonically as his eyes glaze over with barely contained pain and anger. We’ve already seen Arm act violently, but here it is as if he is composed entirely of the stuff, turning it inward as much as out.

If the film has a weak point, it is in the wasting of Algar’s wolfish turn as the compassionate, conflicted Ursula, reduced essentially to an embodied redemptive arc for Arm. Similarly, the other women circling the film are resigned to the margins. Still, Calm with Horses’ driving concern – the corrosive nature of violence on the self – is rendered in brutal, empathic precision, while the recovery of its protagonist’s humanity as it teeters on the cliff edge is simply heartbreaking. Rowland’s cast is uniformly superb, but it is a lingering close up of Jarvis – simply too moving to spoil with details here – that finally brings the house down.

Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm