Synopsis: In rural Ireland, ex-boxer Douglas `Arm’ Armstrong has become the feared enforcer for the drug-dealing Devers family, while also trying to be a good father to his autistic five-year-old son, Jack.
Stars: Cosmo Jarvis, Barry Keoghan, Niamh Algar, Ned Dennehy, Kiljan Moroney, Anthony Welsh, David Wilmot
Director: Nick Rowland
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Even though we’re in the midst of a national health crisis, household chores still need to be done just like movies need to be watched and reviewed. So the other night, I knew I had The Shadow of Violence coming up in my queue to screen and thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and do a little cleaning while I watched the film. Now, when a movie is involved I’m not the kind of multi-tasker than can truly do two or three things at the same time…I’m more of a one and a half tasker-type so anything I pair with a movie has to be something that’s truly mindless.
Reading the description of The Shadow of Violence (previously titled and released in some international territories as the more interesting Calm with Horses, which is taken from the short story the movie is based on) I thought I’d be safe going about my movie and a half task. After all, you’ve seen one quiet thug working for a dangerous family who turns out to be not so bad crime drama before, you’ve seen them all. Right? Well, in the case of this hard-nosed and surprisingly intriguing film from Ireland it shows there’s still room for effective storytelling within a genre that’s seemingly been played out. It wasn’t too long into things that I found myself absorbed into the action, leaving all thoughts of my other work behind and intently watching director Nick Rowland’s unpredictable corker.
You’d be forgiven if you watched the first ten minutes of The Shadow of Violence and thought you’d found your way into yet another cliché-ridden film about small-time gangsters in an even smaller town. Beefy brawler Arm (Cosmo Jarvis, Annihilation) is the muscle the notorious Devers family uses when they want to send a message. Haunted by a past he can’t change and living in a present he can’t fix, Arm goes through the motions as a means to an end in order to provide for his developmentally challenged son and estranged girlfriend (Niamh Algar). Struggling to be a good father that shows up for his son but lacking the maturity to deal with a child that needs his full attention, Arm takes his guilt out on whatever sad soul the Devers send him to rough up.
In service more as a henchman to Dympna Devers (Barry Keoghan, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) than to any one of his more fearsome elder relatives, we first meet Arm doing menial bloody knuckle work on those that have run afoul of the Devers good will. Things turn dark though as Arm is drawn into a web of betrayals when he becomes part of a family dispute that sours quickly. Forced into a life or death situation that winds up putting him in a moral dilemma, Arm makes a choice that has a ripple effect throughout the Devers family, the town, and his own home. Now, having to navigate through a system of deceit while ensuring the safety of his family, Arm brings those he fears closer while trying (perhaps in vain) to shield everyone around him from a wrath waiting to be unleashed once he is discovered.
It’s nice to find movies like The Shadow of Violence which, despite their dime-a-dozen title, and less than inspiring tagline turn out to amount to far more than what you see on the surface. Working from screenwriter Joseph Murtagh’s adaptation of Colin Barrett’s short story, Rowland lets the film’s first act develop at a leisurely pace…almost too leisurely at times because with so many characters introduced you start to lose track of who is related to whom. He snaps things back nice and taut, though, for the final half and delivers an unexpectedly rich examination of a bruised soul that sought redemption in the worst place possible who winds up finding some semblance of hope where it had been all along.
I had no trouble buying Keoghan as the unhinged enfant terrible of an already nasty family. The actor’s tendency to oversell his intentions winds up working for him here and Dympna makes for an interesting quasi-villain you kinda can’t stop wanting to see more of. Speaking of seeing more of, Algar’s performance as Arm’s fed-up significant other is gutsy and boldly memorable, a not easy task when sharing the screen with the likes of the scene-chewing Keoghan and the quiet magnitude of Jarvis. It’s Jarvis that makes the movie work when all is said and done – you have to buy this thuggish bloke would have a brain and heart to go with his muscles and in scene after scene Jarvis keeps us rapt.
There’s a bleakness to the film that will be off-putting for some and I can understand not wanting to go to that place right now. However, if you’re up for something that feels familiar but is handled with a fresh and feisty spirit, you’re going to want to find your way to The Shadow of Violence to meet the Devers family. It’s a gritty visit to the Irish countryside that packs a nice punch.