Starring Jack Lowden (England is Mine, Dunkirk) and Martin McCann (The Survivalist ) as two old school friends on an ill-fated deer stalking trip to the Scottish highlands, Calibre is a beguiling film which touches on themes of fatherhood, brotherhood and loyalty all wrapped up in a classic thriller.
Supported by an impressive ensemble cast, rising star Lowden, who plays Vaughn, and McCann, who plays Marcus, are predictably impressive, with an uneasy loyalty between their two characters. Although Vaughn, an expectant father, has grown apart from the bullish, cocaine snorting Marcus, it’s clear that he still feels some sense of loyalty to his old school friend, who is charming and convincing, later unravelling into a commanding and terrifying manipulator.
Before the pair head out to shoot, the film sets up a series of decisions which it seems will inevitably spell disaster: Vaughn, a novice hunter, is provided with a different model of rifle; both of them have hangovers and are surviving on very little sleep; and Marcus has taken some cocaine to “take the edge off”. Although, when disaster strikes, it’s not anyone’s fault; a complete accident. Vaughn is in a state of shock — portrayed deftly by Lowden — which means the paranoid Marcus is able to take over. He plays upon Vaughn’s emotions, using his impending fatherhood as a reason to cover up what has happened, persuading him that it wouldn’t be seen as an accident by the authorities.
Writer and director Matt Palmer manages to create almost unbearable levels of tension. Marcus and Vaughn have to act as if nothing has happened to the locals, often lying to their faces; it seems as if at any moment they will be found out. In one scene the protagonists sneak around in the damp woods, feet squelching in mud and lit only by torchlight. The lack of a score here is effective: the almost-silent woods highlight any minute noise as a potential threat. Indeed, sound is incredibly important for building tension throughout, with the natural sounds of the birds, or the wind high in the creaking trees disturbed by the roaring of the 4×4’s engine in the dead of night. As this is a Netflix original film, it’s definitely advisable to hook your laptop up to a good sound system.
The tension is cleverly mirrored in the different points of contrast in the film: between the rural and the urban, between investment and a desire to “maintain order”, and in references to social class. There are comments about the lack of deer stalking tourists coming to the village thanks to a large private country club opening nearby; and references to boarding school. There is also the suspicion surrounding slick city boy Marcus, and the way his character varies sharply with the idea that the village as a collective must do “whatever is necessary” to preserve the villagers’ way of life.
After all this, it’s a relief that the payoff is so good, the conclusion proving to be quite brutal and shocking but oddly satisfying. The twisted reason of the situation causes one character to question whether it’s “right”, with another retorting “right’s a long way gone”, an apt way to sum up the absolute bleakness of the situation.
Despite a perhaps ill-advised joke early in the film (although this could, in context, be a matter of characterisation rather than a problem with the script), Calibre is a fantastic film, a well-balanced white knuckle thriller with real depth.
Image Credit: Edinburgh International Film Festival.