The threat of violence follows small town tough guy Douglas “Arm” Armstrong like his own shadow, but the tragic irony of his story is that he really doesn’t want to hurt anyone. In The Shadow of Violence, the riveting debut feature from Irish filmmaker Nick Rowland, people are trapped in the roles that others see for them, based on youthful mistakes and family pedigree, and the only hope for self-determination is to get the hell out. It’s not a new story or a particularly original one, but Joseph Murtagh’s script (based on a short story by Colin Barrett) explores Arm’s psyche with sensitivity and depth, buoyed by an astonishing performance in the lead role, as English actor Cosmo Jarvis takes what could be a dour character and turns him inside out before our eyes.

Arm has the look and demeanor of a henchman who stands in the background until it’s time to step forward and break someone’s face. Built like a bull, he glowers and squints, head down as if ready to charge, and it’s clear that his physicality has largely determined his lot in life. Well known in his western Irish coastal town as a former boxer, he’s drifted into work as an enforcer for the sleazy Dever family. When his boss Dympna (Barry Keoghan) calls on Arm to rough up a guy who behaved badly at a party, Arm is reluctant, asking, “Is he going to make things awkward?” The spasm of violence that follows is one of the only times that Arm actually unleashes his fists. He spends most of the movie trying to avoid committing the violence that everyone seems to expect from him.

Cosmo Jarvis occupies the role of Arm with a fascinating mixture of menace and vulnerability. The actor echoes Brando in his prime. Physically imposing, Arm’s features betray a gentleness and innocence that he hides from all but those closest to him. His ex-girlfriend, Ursula (Niamh Algar) disdains him for his childishness and petty crimes, but seems not to fear his anger. Her tolerance is the first clue that Arm is misunderstood. Their five-year-old autistic child, Jack (Kiljan Tyr Moroney), is a sensitive boy that Arm desperately wants to understand, and Ursula’s plan to enroll him in a special school in a remote city gives Arm the clarity of purpose he needs to rise above the choices he’s made.

The film unfolds in scenes that saturate the screen with the textures of life in contemporary rural Ireland, from smoky pubs throbbing with pop music to treeless tract housing overlooking the gray blur of the North Atlantic. The filmmakers let Jarvis’s soulful face do a lot of work, and his expressions eloquently tell the story of a man who could have lived a different life if he hadn’t been trapped by low expectations and bad choices. The violence, when it comes, is brutal and quick – one hyper-kinetic car chase on a country road feels like an outtake from The Road Warrior – but Arm is almost always fleeing from the violence rather than inflicting it.

It seems the one thing Arm can’t flee is his own name. The Colin Barrett short story that provided the basis for the script was titled “Calm with Horses,” and this offers a glimpse of how Arm’s life has gone astray. Witnessing his son taking horse riding lessons under the tutelage of a kind and patient man (Anthony Welsh) who has designs on Ursula, Arm sees the life he could have had, if only he hadn’t been nicknamed for the weapon that bears his own fist. Arm’s destiny has been a ball and chain. It’s a poignant theme, and the film nails it with devastating clarity: You can no more easily escape your past than you can escape your own shadow.

The smart script and an astonishing performance provide sensitivity and depth to this riveting debut feature.
82 %
Irish Noir
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