The Shadow of Violence (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★
Nick Rowland’s debut picture opens with the image of its subject’s wounded knuckles. We note how he holds his fists just so, that they are not just mere body parts but weapons for breaking noses, jaws, ribs, and spirit. They belong to a former pugilist named Arm (Cosmo Jarvis) whose passion for the sport waned after he killed an opponent by accident. Now, he is a lapdog for the Devers family—a family of drug dealers in rural Ireland—summoned by his masters whenever and for whatever reason. This is a story of a dog who will try to regain some of his humanity. And reclaiming that freedom will cost a whole lot.
Jarvis delivers a most humanistic performance. Arm’s dominating body frame suggests a man not to be reckoned with because he is more than capable of knocking the wind out of you with a punch half-pulled. When he looks at you, it feels like he is coming up with ways to bring on the hurt. But when he speaks, underneath the tough persona and swagger is a gentleness, a man yearning to be listened to, to be respected, to be regarded as more than what his intimidating presence inspires. On the outside, it is a quiet performance. But do not be fooled: When the character is faced with an impossible situation, like when he is tasked by the Devers to prove his loyalty—that he is “family”—by killing another man who molested a thirteen-year-old girl, every fiber of Jarvis’ being is intensely alive. Jarvis is one to watch.
Our brutish protagonist is also a father although he doesn’t quite know how to be one. We spend plenty of time with him attempting to reconnect with his former flame named Ursula (Niamh Algar) and his young son Jack (Kiljan Moroney). Ursula keeps her distance not because she thinks Arm is not a good father nor is he incapable of learning to be a better one but because everybody knows what it means to be in business with the Devers; no good can come of it. It is her way of protecting her autistic son and maybe—just maybe—it might inspire Arm, whom she loves (but no longer in a romantic way), to return to the way he was: a man of honor, a man of dignity, a man who is not afraid to be around and to be present.
Notice how the picture spends more time showing its subject being with family instead of drug addicts being beaten to a bloody pulp. What results is a rumination of how violence affects a person and those within his circle rather than being about the brutality itself. It is a thoughtful character study, one that takes its time to reveal different parts of our protagonist: his fears, his purpose, the sacrifices he is willing to make, where it is he would like to get up and with whom. Arm is referred to as “dumb” more than thrice, jokingly or otherwise. It shows how much they don’t know him—but we do because we get a chance to study him when no one else is watching. There is a deep vulnerability beneath his facade.
Piers McGrail’s cinematography stood out to me. There are stunning shots of the countryside, particularly of vehicles snaking their way through verdant hills. The blue sky is blinding. It feels a promise of freedom should Arm successfully make it to the other side. But more impressive to me is manner in which faces are framed, how the camera traps them in a tight space so that their increasing desperation will reveal the rawest elements of their being. Clearly, the film is for audiences who are willing to think and consider beyond images presented on screen.
“The Shadow of Violence” (also titled “Calm with Horses”) is not just another Irish gangster film designed to inspire squirming from those looking in. It is a carefully controlled and calculated debut film, written by Joseph Murtagh, with something to say about people who have or have had a rough past. I think a case can be made that this is a story of forgiveness—not the decision to forgive but the process of it. I admired many choices that were made here.