Accidentally shooting someone in the head can really put a downer on a holiday. Just ask the two protagonists in Netflix’s unbearably tense Scottish thriller Calibre. Marcus (Martin McCann) and Vaughn (Jack Lowden) are two old friends embarking on one last trip before Vaughn ruins his social life forever by having a kid. Marcus, played with mesmerising intensity by McCann, is taking them on a hunting trip in the Scottish highlands. It’s a slow buildup as they leave the city behind and journey into the beautiful Scottish wilderness. They’re staying in a remote village where the locals have just a hint of The Wicker Man about them – you’re half expecting Christopher Lee to pop out in a kilt at any second. When one of them casually mentions that this very weekend also happens to be the date of an obscure ancient solstice festival complete with a bonfire, you start to really worry for the boys. And your worries are not unfounded, although the trouble they get in is of their own making.
Trouble starts the moment they arrive after Marcus buys a drink for a local girl and almost comes to head-butts with a jealous onlooking man. The warning to “keep an eye on your friend” from local bigwig Logan has a ring of ominous foreshadowing about it. Unfortunately for the mild-mannered Vaughn it’s clear that Marcus is the one in charge, which is a bit like appointing a lit stick of dynamite as the babysitter. Marcus is the kind of character who finds trouble just by existing. He’s Withnail without the jokes. The sort of guy you’d run a mile from if you had any sense but you don’t because he’s your friend. The lads wake up the next morning with a hangover and head off into the woods to kill something. They succeed but suffice to say that if you tried to mount the head of their prey above the fireplace, you’d get some awfully funny looks from the neighbours. It’s a sickening moment that from then on infuses every second of the film’s remaining runtime with a dramatic tension that turns your palms into reservoirs. Watching it is excruciating, like being stuck on a broken-down Tube train with stomach cramps. And as the lads panic and make increasingly bad decisions to cover their tracks, it only gets worse. It’s a measure of the film’s quality that this fairly unoriginal premise is still packed full of surprises, misdirections and twists. Just when you think you know where it’s heading, it veers thrillingly off track.
The deft handling of these well-worn genre tropes is down to the skill of Matt Palmer, the writer and director of this fantastic debut feature. It’s the kind of confident work you’d expect from a film-maker with much more experience and its raw power brings to mind some of Ben Wheatley’s best stuff. Palmer’s script is taut and clever and he elicits some wonderful performances from his actors, from menacing thug Brian McClay (Ian Pirie), to the simpering wreck of Vaughn. The whole film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Márk Györi, who manages, as the story unfolds, to turn the Scottish highlands from a picture postcard into a prison. Its beauty becomes claustrophobic as the net closes around our boys and the scenery that was meant to offer a relaxing escape, becomes a labyrinth.
Calibre’s power is such that it could make even the most psychotic big-game hunting American dentist think twice before picking up a rifle. If Walter Palmer had watched this before his trip to Africa, Cecil the Lion might still be with us. It packs more of a punch than films with 100 times the budget and shows that you don’t need a superhero to grab an audience. You need atmosphere. And the atmosphere conjured by Palmer et al doesn’t let you go for a second. In fact, even after the credits roll and you’ve turned back to the latest reality dating show, you’ll still be thinking about the final haunting image even as Chad from New Jersey licks maple syrup off an influencer. It’s a film that also explores some big questions: what would you do to save someone’s life? What would you do to save your own? What is justice? But never gives any easy answers – except perhaps one. What would you do if you found yourself being chased through the woods by a group of irate Scotsmen? Run.
Calibre is available on Netflix in the US and UK