The Shadow of Violence sets itself somewhere in rural Ireland, where the green land meanders and the blood runs fast. It’s there where we find an ex-boxer, Douglas Armstrong (Cosmo Jarvis), who dispenses regular punishment to those who may or may not deserve it. He’s nicknamed “Arm,” because of his bruising strength but also because he has one of those label names that convey something about the character. Douglas is a blunt instrument, a fiction forged with humanist ideals and a degree of poetic fancy. He’s the monstrous male, as large and thick as an oak tree, the man whose hulking body and fierce actions define both him and his relationships, inspiring fear and contempt. That there’s more to him than primitive strength is inevitable in movies like this one, which tries to complicate the archetypal Sensitive Brute with melodrama, expressive cinematography and a sense of grace.
The film’s director Nick Rowland from the get-go locks your interest with a curious, seemingly contradictory mix of beauty and danger, a combination encapsulated by the delicately blurred opening image of a man’s powerful clenching fist. That hand belongs to Douglas and it will soon be pummeled into another man’s face. This act of barbarism has its ostensible reasons: The beaten man is accused of sexually assaulting a young woman. But given the savagery of the beating you wonder if there’s something else, something bigger, deeper at stake — a man’s humanity, the soul of the people. Douglas serves as the muscle for Dympna Devers (Barry Keoghan), a wily runt who deals drugs for his family’s criminal enterprise. The Devers’ are the kind of slow-but-sharp types, all gaping mouths and dead eyes, who routinely crop up in movies that they would be unlikely to see. Massed in front of the telly like spectators, the women here are largely indistinguishable. The only characters who count, who do things, are the men, including two uncles: Hector (David Wilmot) and the hyper-violent Paudi (Ned Dennehy).
Written by Joe Murtagh, The Shadow of Violence is based on Irish writer Colin Barrett’s novella Calm With Horses (which is the film’s title in every country except for in the U.S.). And the simplicity of the film’s crime plot feels very much in step with a debut film in that it acts as a blueprint for Rowland’s likely interests. Even with that simplicity though, there is still just enough ambiguity onscreen, particularly during the movie’s early stretch, making the plot mechanics not too conspicuous. Rowland’s most productive strategy is how he, and cinematographer Piers McGrail, contrast visual beauty to soften Douglas and our perceptions of him, notably by nestling him in the dusky twilight when the world hovers at the edge of visibility.
Douglas is the kind of character that, during a certain period, would’ve/could’ve been played by actors like Eric Bana or Matthias Schoenaerts, both of whom excel as beautiful bruisers. And as a devastating center of the film, Cosmo Jarvis is all scar tissue, brooding silence, and pained eyes. With a hulking physical carriage, the performance genuinely brings to mind Marlon Brando, the original damaged bad boy with a soul. Jarvis hauls his character’s anguish through every scene, without saying much, and while Douglas is mostly a cypher, it’s logical he keeps the audience at arm’s length as he never seems to let anyone in.
From what I’ve heard and read, Douglas as a character is tweaked a little bit from the novella; turning down his brutality and turning up his wit and sense to make him more palatable and maybe just more forgivable. Even in the opening voice-over, Douglas’ confessional tones seems similarly calculated to draw you closer to the character, as does some drama with his ex (Niamh Algar) and son. The movie seems to want to side-step the harsher nuances and try to convince you that Douglas is better than his worst self and that he can transcend the dehumanizing degradations in which he’s entangled. But even with that somewhat overly simplistic depiction, the heart of it all comes from Jarvis’ performance, which delivers in a magnetic and affecting fashion. As a morality tale of claustrophobic entrapments, The Shadow of Violence does an alright job, but as a calling card and showcase for Cosmo Jarvis, the film shines.
The Shadow of Violence is currently in select theaters, before opening on VOD on September 1st.