Early in “The Shadow of Violence,” a beefy Irish thug named Douglas Armstrong (“Arm” to everybody) defends his day job of beating people up for local gangsters by saying, “They say violence is done by hateful men — but sometimes, it’s just the way a fella makes sense of this world.”
The film uses lines like that in an attempt to pull off a tricky feat. It wants us to feel sympathy for Arm as a guy just trying to make sense of the world, but it doesn’t do it the easy way; first we see him calmly beat an old man to a pulp for something the guy might not have even done, and then we learn he has a heart of gold.
First-time feature director Nick Rowland stacks the deck against his lead character by doing it that way, but he’s not interested in making a typical movie about gangsters. Yes, what Arm does makes him a hateful man, and we can never forget that. And yes, we end up feeling for the guy despite that — partly because the people around him are even worse than he is, but also because Rowland has managed to make “The Shadow of Violence” a quiet and affecting character study in the moments when it’s not being brutal and bloody.
Arm will break your nose without batting an eye, but by the end of the film he might also break your heart.
The film, which is based on a short story by Colin Barrett, premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival under the title “Calm With Horses” and was acquired in the U.S. by Saban Films early this year. The original title, which was also used in its Irish theatrical release, is a reference to Arm’s autistic son, who is at his happiest when he’s around or riding horses. Arm isn’t sure about this — at one point he refers to a horse as “a f—ing hairy bike” — and he’s estranged from the boy’s mother, but at some level, he’s truly devoted to the son he can’t understand or connect with.
But Arm, who’s played by Cosmo Jarvis as a man who exudes hurt, not menace, isn’t really welcome in his son’s life as long as he’s working as an enforcer for the local gangsters. A former boxer who quit that profession after he killed another young man in the ring, he can’t see a way of making money except with his fists — and besides, his childhood friend Dympna (Barry Keoghan, “Dunkirk”) has made sure that Arm is welcomed by his uncles, who head the Devers crime family.
“People say they’re trouble, the Devers,” Arm says to the audience in a voiceover early in the film. “All families have problems. This is my family.”
But the people who say the Devers are trouble are right. Brothers Paudi and Hector Devers (Ned Dennehy and David Wilmot) are ruthless drug lords, Paudi dissolute-looking and vicious, and Hector, a touch classier. Their nephew Dympna is sullen and hostile and seemingly invulnerable because he’s a Devers; he may look meeker and less dangerous than Arm, but he’s the one who will leap straight to violence if he’s even slightly provoked.
But it turns out that the Devers didn’t want Arm to beat up that old man at the beginning of the film — they wanted him to kill the man, who climbed into bed with a teenage Devers girl while she was blacked-out drunk. Arm is bound to a narrow idea of masculinity that’s rooted in brute force, and his perpetually bruised and bloodied knuckles show that he’s perfectly fine beating people senseless — but a man’s got to draw the line somewhere, and for him, it’s killing.
On paper, that makes it sound like Arm is a sympathetic character only because the bar is set so low among this group of people. But the film somehow manages to infuse this thug with some battered shreds of humanity, both in his halting attempts to connect with his son and the wounded resignation with which he approaches his tasks.
Jarvis, a musician and actor who might be best known for his central role alongside Florence Pugh in “Lady Macbeth,” is quietly gripping as Arm; there are echoes of Matthias Schoenaerts’ breakout performance in the Belgian Oscar nominee “Bullhead” in the way Jarvis fleshes out a man struggling with his own brutality.
“That’s not you,” people keep telling Arm. But it is him, or at least what he has allowed himself to become. And when his reluctance to kill runs afoul of the Devers, the noose begins to tighten around him. He’s in trouble because he showed mercy, but he may have to become merciless to get out of trouble (if that’s even possible).
But Rowland, to his credit, is as reluctant to fully commit to the brutality as Arm is, leading to an elegantly shot final stretch that is as much an elegy as a showdown. While the film’s U.S. title isn’t as evocative as the one it started with, the new title does tell the story: This is more about the shadows than the violence.
Saban Films releases “The Shadow of Violence” in theaters on July 31 and on VOD and digital on Sept. 1.