Director: Matt Palmer
Writer: Matt Palmer
Stars: Jack Lowden, Martin McCann, Tony Curran
Calibre is the latest film to be hoovered up by Netflix after nabbing the award for best British feature at the Edinburgh Film Festival. I’ve mentioned the hit rate being 50/50 on that platform previously, but this is definitely a hit for them. A low budget Scottish film with an English director that honed his craft in Glasgow, set in the wilderness of the breathtakingly, beautiful Highlands. It’s a thriller and I certainly love those. Matt Palmer has wrote a brilliantly simple story with underlying complexities that threatens some eye rolling cliches a few times in its taut 100 minutes running time, but thankfully, manages to dodge them.
If only, that little boy could’ve dodged the bullet that ended him with such ease, then our protagonists wouldn’t have been in the sticky pickle that fuels the nail biting tension and terrifying ambience that prevails in the little, isolated and closely knit village.
It follows the two close friends, Vaughn (Jack Lowden) and Marcus (Martin McCann), as they journey up north for a hunting break in the wooded wilderness of the aforementioned Scottish Highlands. They’re armed with a couple of rifles, a knife and a whiskey flask and they plan to integrate with the locals in the pub during brief respites, but things all go tragically wrong. A little boy, who just so happens to be related to a few pillars of the community, including Brian (Ian Pirie), a particularly psychotic chap, walks right in front of the quiet and unassuming father to be that is Vaughn, just as he fires at a deer. Now, I know what you’re thinking here, that’s a pretty bad situation to find yourself in and you’d be right.
Marcus though, not to be outdone, has no intention of letting his more easy going buddy have all the fun of carrying untold guilt upon his conscience. A more impulsive and brash kind of guy, he decides to shoot the boys father, who at that point, admittedly, is weighing up whether to kill Vaughn after discovering the fallen, limp shape of his son.
That’s the catalyst for what follows and it’s really after that point when things become interesting. You see, the pair do their best to try and nervously mingling with the locals, whilst covering up the murders and attempting an escape. At least that was the plan anyway, but it doesn’t work out very well for them. The fact that Marcus has a propensity for mixing drink and drugs, and gets accused of drugging a young lady, throws a deadly banana skin just as they’re getting ready to flee the scene. Brian has no intention of letting that go without some form of retribution which he dishes out to Marcus’ nose. By the end of the film, I’m sure he would’ve probably settled for escaping with that.
The only thing that truly saves them from a real tanking at this point is the mere fact that they’re a couple of wealthy ‘southerners’ amidst the strained financial confines of a small Highland town. That’s something I quite enjoyed, the way Palmer played upon that undercurrent of north/south animosity, which is has always been prevalent in Scotland. His time spent in Glasgow would’ve been key to that particular education. The locals wear a facade of nice in the hopes of gaining some investment, they push drinks in Marcus and Vaughn’s face, invite them to local festivals, which only has the effect of ramping up the tension because they’re genuinely uncomfortable and want out.
Another one of the big positives I took from this film, incidentally, away from the smart screenplay, themes and perfectly built tension was that the acting is pretty excellent across the board in Calibre. Ian Pirie’s Brian is a big boy, with violent tendencies and you can easily imagine how he reacts to these rich boys destroying the equilibrium of his town and family. Logan (Tony Curran), the more sensible, level headed brother does his best time and again to cool the situation, although he even has his hands tied when the truth is eventually aired. The good cop, bad cop nature of the pair works well and the two of them are superb here, as indeed are the whole supporting cast.
But by far, the best performances come from our leading pair of ‘anti-heroes’. Even now, I’m not entirely sure if they deserve that title. They committed a heinous crime after all.
Palmer does a great job of balancing your sympathy between Vaughn, Marcus and the villagers. Jack Lowden was hand picked for the role, prior to even starring in Christoper Nolan’s Dunkirk and you can understand why now. Vaughn is truly unique in that he finds himself in a particularly awful predicament. The death of the boy was a total accident, and as father to be himself, you can feel the pent up guilt and conflict within him. He’s without doubt the most complex character in the film and the scene at the end when he has a huge decision to make, features the best acting in the entire film.
McCann was great too though and he played off Lowden really well. Although he didn’t conjure up the same level of sympathy as the Vaughn character, because he was a bit of an arrogant arse, you just couldn’t help but feel tremendous pity for him regardless. I was incredibly conflicted as to whether I wanted both the men to escape or face vengeance by the tumultuous final twenty minutes. Palmer has been quoted as saying that he needed actors in Calibre who’s “were psychologically believable” and he certainly got that from McCann and Lowden.
What can you say about the cinematographer in this film? It was beautifully shot from start to finish. If you set a film in the Highlands then you better do it right and they did. The forest had a foreboding sense of dread at the start and you could cut the tension with a knife during the search and rescue scene. The close shots of the leading pairs faces, during the more awkward or emotionally fuelled moments only lended furthermore to the performances and overall feel of panic, dread, guilt and haste to escape.
There’s a moment towards the end, when Palmer could’ve quite easily went down the conventional route of bloody, gore filled violence and lost of profanity fuelled shouting, but instead he opts for complete silence and shies away from showing any violence at all.
I throughly enjoyed Calibre. It was an engrossing story, the time flew in watching it and that’s a testament to both the writing and performances. They introduced the primary players, premise and then let it play out in what felt like a convincingly, gruesome and organic manner. The majority of it was tense, atmospheric, featured sporadics bouts of brutality in parts that packed a punch. It explored the effects of widespread poverty in northern Scotland and the introspective dangers of tangling yourself in a web of lies. I’m not aware of what the budget was, but it must have been small, I know it was independent and Palmer worked wonders for what was his feature length debut. The fact this is a Scottish film, only served to further my enjoyment.
If you love a tense, psychological, edge of your seat thriller then you’ll love this one.