Writer-director Matt Palmer’s depiction of a rural Highland town and its inhabitants is not doing the Scottish tourism board any favours. His new film, Calibre, out on Netflix in a week, walks the line between outright horror and pulse-pounding masculine drama with notable style, and gives rising star Jack Lowden some seriously grisly meat to chew on. Overall, however, this tidy, affecting morality play with an impressive cast and excellent sound work cannot escape some garishly ill-devised plotting, a tiresome amount of doom and gloom, and a seriously terrible haircut.
The fun begins in Edinburgh, as Vaughn (Lowden), kisses his pregnant wife goodbye for a weekend hunting in the Highlands with his lifelong friend Marcus (Martin McCann). Upon their arrival in the rural town, they cross paths with aggressive locals, dangerous women, and some surprisingly friendly contacts. Palmer builds a commendably unnerving sense of dread as every craggy corner in this middle-of-nowhere locale seems to possess some unseen malice, and the director’s horror influences are well-established early on. At times one expects some glowing eyes or demonic cackle to make an appearance but Palmer’s film avoids the supernatural in favor of the more horrifying type of evil: the one within man himself.
If that last line struck you as a bit much, take it as a test. If that sort of melodramatic meditation on evil! and honor! and truth! and shame! strikes you as a fun time, maybe you’d love Calibre. If the line “This can only be paid for in blood” doesn’t strike you as laughable, by all means get on Netflix on June 29th and stream this thing.
Otherwise, take my word for it, this film is poorly measured. Lowden turns in another commendable performance as Vaughn, who commits a horrendous act completely by accident, which is so genuinely shocking that I won’t dare ruin the surprise when it comes. McCann is impressive as the cunning and duplicitous Marcus, who is unnervingly good at covering their tracks after the act, which implicates both of them in heinous wrongdoing and will completely destroy both their lives if discovered. Also delivering the goods is Tony Curran, a reliable presence on screen, who gives great depth to local leader Logan, who keeps the most brick-headed townsfolk from tearing the city boys to shreds just for being outsiders.
Indeed, though most of the narrative follows the young men as they try to evade discovery, Calibre also has a lot to say about the relationship between rural and urban, rich and poor, privileged and underprivileged, strong and weak. Yet as the tension rises and the plot twists and yanks itself around, most of these ‘insights’ are either screamed at a frenzy worthy of Nicolas Cage’s choicest meltdowns, or growled with such Straw Dogs-esque menace, turned up to 11, that it comes off as silly rather than terrifying. This all culminates in a climactic setup so dour, so tastelessly brutal, that one cannot help but feel like they are watching Saw: Highlands Edition rather than the Hitchcockian crime thriller it packages itself as. Calibre does not ultimately earn its dourness, but rather just piles it on, in the hopes that grisliness will make up for lack of direction. (Not to mention, it is hard to have much sympathy for Vaughn when all his weeping and moaning is done while sporting such a revolting hairdo. But that might just be me.)
Palmer clearly has a nice grasp on how to build tension, and he is particularly impressive in his use of sound to set a scene. But Calibre would be vastly better if it knew how to release that tension in its final act without lazing into tasteless impulses. Skip it, I reckon.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 21 June)
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(Calibre is showing today, Saturday 23 June & on Saturday 30 June. See EIFF programme for venues.)