A wee bromantic hunting weekend in the Scottish highlands spirals into a living nightmare for the two protagonists of Matt Palmer’s Calibre, a brutally effective little thriller which rings welcome changes on hackneyed urbanites-vs-backwoodsfolk templates.
Scooping the Michael Powell Award for best new British feature at Edinburgh, the Netflix Original’s worldwide bow on the service Friday could scarcely be better timed. And while amply deserving the kind of big-screen exposure its Netflix deal explicitly prohibits, this low-budget, horror-tinged pulse-quickener likely heralds a high-profile theatrical future from its writer-director. The fact that Palmer has been snapped up by Christopher Nolan’s William Morris Endeavor agent Dan Aloni — news breaking in tandem with the Powell announcement — speaks for itself.
Having turned out a handful of widely traveled shorts over the past dozen years including Island (2007) and The Gas Man (2014), Palmer graduates to a bigger canvas with confident aplomb here. He takes well-remembered 1970s classics like Straw Dogs, Deliverance and The Wicker Man as his obvious templates before wisely heading off in original directions of his own.
Striking out into unfamiliar territory has its hazards, of course, as longtime buddies Vaughn (Jack Lowden) and Marcus (Martin McCann) learn when venturing into the Caledonian wilds for a couple days’ shooting. That Vaughn is shown being waved off on the doorstep of their suburban home by his pregnant wife Anna (Olivia Morgan) will strike an ominous note for those even passingly familiar with the tropes of genre cinema. After a very boozy first night in a village pub with the (mostly) friendly locals, the hungover duo head off into the forest to bag some game. Big mistake. Accidental and tragic complications rapidly ensue.
Vaughn and Marcus’ decision not to immediately report what has happened to the authorities is the crux upon which Palmer’s whole screenplay hinges. And while there are occasional plausibility issues that surface during the remaining 80-odd minutes, most audiences will be too gripped by the dread-drenched developments to notice or much care.
Much credit for this must go to Calibre‘s invisible MVP, editor Chris Wyatt — yet another instance of a rookie director benefiting massively from being paired with an old-hand. Wyatt’s credits date way back to 1980 and include a slew of Peter Greenaway extravaganzas, E Elias Merhige’s Shadow of the Vampire (the editing of which was legendarily problematic), Charlie Brooker’s cult TV horror Dead Set and notable British indies such as Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes and This Is England, Carole Morley’s The Falling and Yann Demange’s ’71.
Most recently, Wyatt worked his subtle magic on last year’s most critically acclaimed U.K. production, God’s Own Country by newcomer Francis Lee. Here his expert cutting builds and maintains tension throughout, all the way to a bloody, grim finale of quite gut-wrenching ferocity. Up until this point, there’s not actually that much violence shown in Calibre — the nastiest development, a post-mortem mutilation, mercifully occurs off-camera. But the specter of imminent bloodshed hangs very heavy over proceedings as the nervy Vaughn and more self-possessed Marcus’ missteps lead them into a moral quagmire of horrific implications.
These are juicy, grueling roles for Scot Lowden (from Dunkirk and England Is Mine) and Ulsterman McCann (who resembles a bantamweight Michael Fassbender); both will have their visibility and reputation enhanced by Calibre‘s success. Hungarian cinematographer Mark Gyori, who had a kind of dry run for these bosky, hunting-themed dramatics back home in Aron Matyassy’s little-seen Weekend (2015), shifts smoothly from the village’s cozy interiors to the menacing moonlit shadows of the great outdoors, while Ben Baird and Tim Barker’s sound design knows exactly when to turn up the volume and when to quickly dial down into bleak silence.
But where Palmer really scores is by striking, in situations of extremity, such a delicate balance of sympathies between the duo and the villagers. Led by the squire-like Logan (Tony Curran) — incarnating a very Scottish blend of reserve, dry understatement, old-school civility and flinty humor — they have every right to feel deeply wronged by these affluent but clumsy outsiders who have stumbled into their midst. This, allied with a mature social concern about the plight of remote, economically marginal but tightly knit communities, gives Calibre a pungent, intriguing layer of ambiguity that only sharpens the acute pain of the awful events so skillfully depicted. Both Ken Loach and Wes Craven would surely approve.
Production company: Wellington Films
Cast: Jack Lowden, Martin McCann, Tony Curran, Ian Pirie, Cal MacAninch
Director-screenwriter: Matt Palmer
Producers: Alastair Clark, Anna Griffin
Cinematographer: Mark Gyori
Production designer: Miren Maranon Tejedor
Costume designer: Elle Wilson
Editor: Chris Wyatt
Composer: Anne Nikitin
Casting director: Theo Park
Venue: Edinburgh International Film Festival (Best of British / Michael Powell Award)
Sales: Beta Cinema, Munich