Matt Palmer’s Calibre isn’t afraid to recognise genre convention but distinguishes itself with a few well-placed surprises, a pleasing muddying of the battle lines, classy performances and an atmosphere that stings.
Calibre, the 2018 recipient of the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s Best British Film award, is impressive for the caustic, tightly wound tension it subjects us to from the outset. Indeed, as an example in the art of creating and sustaining a palpable sense of unease, as if the very ground on which these characters walk upon is loose and crumbling, Matt Palmer’s film is a cinematic masterclass.
From the first moments of his camera peering over the wide expanse of the Scottish Highlands (the irony of its beauty in this tale of woe punctuated by the minor notes of the score’s string section) to the door opening on the local pub from which two tourists awkwardly try to fit in with the locals, Calibre forces you, through forceful, sweaty grip, to the edge of your seat. And that’s before anything has really happened.
When Marcus (Martin McCann) and Vaughn (Jack Lowden) finally set off on their ill-fated deer hunt we’re already fearful for their wellbeing prior to the instigating factor – Vaughn accidentally fatally shooting a young boy – beginning a chain of unfortunate events that will fundamentally change their lives.
A film about morality, the consequence of actions, and self-preservation, Calibre is happy taking dramatic license to fulfil its commitment to this roller coaster ride. It may dip into genre cliché for some of its character roles and the connecting fibres of its structure, clearly drawing inspiration from the insular cliques of countryside communities as seen in An American Werewolf in London, The Wicker Man and Straw Dogs, but Palmer’s relentless pacing in combination with the colloquialism of the locale and a pervading sense of dread means this ride is not one you want to get off.
Of particular note is Logan, a self-appointed patriarch played with an air of toughened zeal by Tony Curran. The fates of our two protagonists lie at the feet of this man; a compelling character stuck rigidly to a moral code whose cause is subversively heroic within Calibre’s own generic constraints. He complements McCann and Lowden’s depictions of two men – our sympathies aligned with their sense of misfortune if not their ensuing actions – whose desired survival is clouded by Logan’s understandable pursuit of justice.
With unexpected turns leading to a profoundly unsettling finale, Calibre marries a picturesque aesthetic with the ugliness of violence; the clash of ego, honour and friendship with the peaceful quiet serenity that preludes the sound of the film’s fateful gunshot. It’s a film that isn’t afraid to recognise genre convention but one that distinguishes itself with a few well-placed surprises, a pleasing muddying of the battle lines, classy performances and an atmosphere that stings.