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Barry Keoghan has quickly risen to that top tier of actors that I’ll watch in absolutely anything. You might not know his name, but his face, somehow cherubic and demonic at once, is impossible to forget. He was the earnest helper on a boat journey in Dunkirk and the mysterious teenager who torments Colin Farrell and his family in The Killing of a Sacred Deer. He’s terrific in a supporting role in The Shadow of Violence, playing the short-fused son in a close-knit crime family. It’s an archetype that goes back to The Godfather, but Keoghan infuses it with fresh details. With his platinum hair, deep-set eyes, and violent temper, he’s a boy trying to hide that he’s nowhere near ready for the real world.
The film is a new twist on an old, essential move. On paper, The Shadow of Violence is nothing special. It’s filled with plot elements that, if you’re familiar with stories about organized crime, you’ve seen a hundred times before. Even the title sounds like a fake film within a film about Hollywood. But its pedestrian screenplay, based on the novella Calm with Horses by Colin Barrett, is enlivened by the strength of its filmmaking and a collection of truly stellar performances. Keoghan gets the most colorful role, but, guided by first-time feature director Nick Rowland, each actor in The Shadow of Violence creates their own riveting interpretation of our flawed, beautiful humanity.
Our protagonist is Arm (Cosmo Jarvis), an ex-boxer in a Irish coastal town who, after killing an opponent in the ring, has taken work as an enforcer for a local crime family. Dympna (Keoghan), the hot-headed son of the clan, manipulates Arm into doing their dirtiest work—beating people who have crossed them to a bloody pulp—by making him feel like he’s part of the family. We don’t know the details of Arm’s upbringing, but it’s easy to see that his acceptance into this unorthodox family fills a childhood void. He offers them protection. They do the same for him.
He is a mountain of a man, muscled beyond description, but Jarvis’ beautifully recessive performance forces us to look deeper. His eyes, tiny slivers set against his enormous physique, reveal a volatile tenderness reminiscent of a young Marlon Brando. As Arm struggles to balance his violent work with his wish to be a presence in the life of his ex-girlfriend Ursula (Niamh Algar) and their son (Kiljan Moroney), a portrait emerges of a conflicted man who has reason to fear both his rage and his compassion. He lives in two worlds, and each is a liability. It’s only a matter of time before they dangerously collide, and Arm is forced to choose.
It’s a promising feature debut from Rowland, who displays an instinct for storytelling that is well beyond his years. It’s there in his exemplary use of color, like the way Ursula, with her pale skin and blonde hair, seems to blend into the yellow walls of her kitchen, making Arm look even more out of place amidst her domesticity. It’s in the way he conveys the impact of violence, showing the blood on Arm’s knuckles, without ever reveling in the bloodshed. It’s in the way the story of this boxer-turned-bruiser becomes a universal tale of quarter-life crisis, of trying to get your shit together before your chance at happiness passes you by for good. It’s the rare occasion in which trite material is elevated into high art through the sheer competence of all involved.
The Shadow of Violence is available Friday on VOD.