A shockingly intense and well-made thriller, Calibre puts the audience and its characters through the wringer as catastrophe besets the Scottish Highlands.
This review of Calibre contains minor spoilers.
Airing on Netflix today, just a week after its home-turf debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival where it won the Michal Powell Award for best new British feature, is Matt Palmer’s Calibre. A nerve-shreddingly tense and impeccably-made thriller, it makes the overrated Hereditary seem like a quaint Disney film.
There’s no need for a séance to summon evil in the Scottish Highlands, where two Edinburgh urbanites have planned a hunting expedition as a farewell to their carefree youth. One of them, Vaughn (Jack Lowden), is engaged and a dad-to-be, about to exchange his freedom for responsibility. His bestie, Marcus (Martin McCann), is a freewheeling coked-up city-boy. The pair is introduced without much fanfare, but it’s clear from the off that they have a longstanding friendship, even though the perceptive screenplay (also by Palmer) sketches their innate differences quickly and clearly.
Things start well enough – beer and banter with a couple of local girls at a rustic lodge (despite some surly warnings from the regular clientele). We get the sense of a rural community being leapfrogged by modern developments and bled dry by competition, including a near-ish hunting lodge that has lured away the typical trigger-happy tourists like Vaughn and Marcus. They’re the only hunters there; alien visitants to a tightknit enclave stewarded by Logan (Tony Curran), a community-minded older fella who immediately cosies up to Marcus and his big-business contacts.
The morning after, the two set out in pursuit of deer. Hungover, they blunder through the dense woodland, eventually stumbling on a noble beast. They aim, they fire. But in the meantime a dopey sprog wandered into the rifle sights, and he ends up with a bullet in his head, just off-centre. His distraught father becomes aggressive and, panicking, they shoot him too. This is where you really start to see the differences between mild-mannered, passive Vaughn and his reckless, randy chum. The two modes of masculinity clash in the aftermath, making each attempt at a cover-up more and more disastrous. Bad decisions stack up like bloodstained Jenga blocks.
This is, somehow, just the setup of Calibre. It proceeds for another hour at least, each minute dripping with gut-chewing inevitability. As the villagers begin to realise something is amiss and the relationship between the friends becomes increasingly fraught, Palmer ratchets up the tension expertly – his horror shorts have accumulated a lot of combined festival mileage, but you can still scarcely believe that Calibre is his feature debut.
He’s surrounded on all sides by talent. Behind the camera is Márk Györi, capturing the autumn splendour of the tangled landscape with alternating menace and admiration. Ben Baird’s sound design squirrels through the lugholes, worms though the brain, accentuating Anne Nikitin’s score. You could close your eyes to Calibre and still feel the damp woodland squelch under the characters’ feet.
In front of the camera things are, arguably, even better. Lowden is impressively empathetic, and keeps the audience onside even throughout his more desperate, reprehensible decisions, but the centre of the film’s black-hole gravity is the terrifically well-observed relationship between the leads. We all need friends a little bit like these, although perhaps ones who are a bit more outdoorsy.