Over the last week, Netflix (the Canadian version) has added several thrillers to its streaming platform. Among this new batch of suspense films, Scottish film Calibre popped up on my ‘Recommended List’. With no instantly recognizable actors, a first-time director, and a familiar storyline, I had guarded expectations for Calibre. SPOILER ALERT: I was very wrong about this absolute gem of a thriller.
Old friends Vaughn and Marcus take a trip into the Scottish Highlands for a hunting weekend together. Vaughn is married and expecting a child, while Marcus hasn’t quite grown up yet. On their first night in the small Scottish village, Marcus’ taste for partying, drugs, and women angers a few locals. The next morning, while hunting, the friends are then involved in a horrific tragedy made worse by their panicked choices. Now Vaughn and Marcus find themselves strangers in a small community that is growing increasingly suspicious of them.
Smart, Lean Storytelling
Written and directed by Matt Palmer, Calibre is an excellent example of smart, lean storytelling. It’s a small film, not because it lacks cinematic grandeur, but because it grounds its suspenseful story in a brutal reality. The atmosphere and tension – of which there is an abundance – is entirely driven by one horrible accident and the choices that follow. In this regard, Calibre is very much a human thriller that weaves its story around guilt and paranoia. I enjoy traditional jump scares, but it was impressive to find myself on the edge of my seat for much of the movie based simply on an investment in the characters and story.
It’s a small film, not because it lacks cinematic grandeur, but because it grounds its suspenseful story in a brutal reality.
As Calibre descends into its third act, all of the poor decisions of its main character culminate into a suspenseful climax and harrowing closing moments. The climax is not the end result of well-staged, convoluted scares and stunts. All of the suspense arises from its characters and the choices with which they are faced. While the conclusion of another recent thriller, Kaleidoscope, was frustrating and even unsatisfying, Calibre’s final moments achieve the effect of leaving you haunted.
Palmer Approaches But Always Steers Clear of Tired Horror Tropes
At several points in Calibre, Palmer appears to be verging into the familiar territory of rural backwoods horror. Its basic story of urban characters venturing into a small community and provoking conflict is fertile ground for a variety of cliches. Fortunately, Palmer always swerves away from these tired tropes by grounding his characters and story in reality. There’s nothing that happens in Calibre that doesn’t feel like it couldn’t happen in the real world. The choices Marcus and Vaughn make never feel contrived; they feel like the inescapable results of desperate situations.
One of the major reasons Calibre never descends into cliched filmmaking is that Palmer wraps the familiar rural backwoods narrative with more contemporary and prescient themes.
One of other the major reasons Calibre never descends into cliched filmmaking is that Palmer wraps the familiar rural backwoods narrative with more contemporary and prescient themes. The small village of Calibre looks like a lot of small towns in England and North America. It’s an economically stagnant town struggling to find some hope. In contrast, Marcus and Vaughn are young, educated, and successful. They’ll stop into this small town to spend some money, have fun, and then leave. In one scene, Marcus reveals he’s a financial planner and even offers to make some inquiries to help some of the townspeople. It’s an empty offer that only serves to further stoke growing animosity. While it is a theme that runs quietly beneath the surface of Calibre, it elevates the film above the potential trappings of a familiar horror narrative.
Excellent Performances Breathe Life into a Good Script
Another reason Calibre rises above the familiar tropes around its basic story are the strong performances and believable characters. Jack Lowden and Martin McCann, as Vaughn and Marcus, convince as lifelong friends within the opens minutes of the film. Their choices, regardless of how logical or illogical, never feel convoluted because you’re completely drawn into their plight. You can feel their desperation and guilt as the film plummets towards its inevitable conclusion.
Tony Curran shines as local Logan McClay, who befriends Marcus and Vaughn upon their arrival. Curran has a good script with which to work. In most films with a similar premise, Curran would have been forced to chew scenery with hackneyed dialogue rendering him as a two-dimensional antagonist. In Calibre, even as a secondary character, Curran’s Logan is penned as a real, complex person, faced with awful decisions. Curran’s performance is subtle, effectively conveying a range of emotions that give Calibre an emotional core to its suspense.
Small Filmmaking at its Best
Calibre is small filmmaking at its best. In the absence of jump scares, big moments, and carefully choreographed action sequences, Palmer crafts a human thriller that is soaked in atmosphere and suspense with a tragic ending that will haunt you long after the credits have rolled. It is a slower film in terms of pacing but well worth investing your time. This is the kind of movie that sneaks up on your Netflix ‘Recommended List’ with no hype and utterly surprises with its quality.
THE PROFESSOR’S FINAL GRADE: A