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Hunting is often referred to as “stalking” by those with a knowledge of the controversial sport. Ask any hunter from Ernest Hemingway to infamous sniper Carlos Hathcock. Most will agree it is the stalking of the kill rather than the killing itself that is the best part of hunting. In Matt Palmer’s lean and mean debut feature Calibre stalking takes on a horrifying new meaning.
Old friends Vaughn (Jack Lowden, Dunkirk) and Marcus (Martin McCann, The Survivalist) are off to the Scottish Highlands for one last hurrah before Vaughn gets married to his newly pregnant fiancé. Upon arrival the timid Vaughn and coke fiend Marcus hit the pub where the locals are everything but hospitable barring successful farmer Logan (Tony Curran) and flirty local women. The next morning – much the worse for wear – the two pals set off to do some stalking. Upon spotting a deer Vaughn lines up his shot. However, at the last second the animal raises its head and Vaughn shoots a child hiker dead. From there things spiral.
Calibre feels both inevitable and unbearable. It is a grim film with little levity beyond the lads’ initial bluster. From the moment Vaughn is harassed by a local in the pub Palmer makes the tension of the film felt. He balances this tautness on his knife edge plot.
Comparisons have already been drawn to Deliverance. However, where in John Boorman’s film the locals come across as rape-obsessed hicks, Palmer makes them figures of sympathy in Calibre. He does it with a sensitivity that working-class cinema hero Ken Loach would be proud of. A tirade by Logan’s brother Brian (Ian Pirie) feels passionate rather than heavy-handed but Palmer continually refers to the economic depression suffered by the Highlands in subtler ways.
Many films are wrongly mislabelled as thrillers when nothing supernatural or monstrous rears its head. Make no mistake though Calibre is as horrific as they come. A night time burial is preceded by a bloody venison dinner in a blood-red room. Palmer could easily have filmed a hokey foreshadowing montage of the dinner. Yet it’s to his and the actors’ credit that the scene is as detailed as it is. A slow build with lots of carefully chosen words and set design mark this as the moment where there is no turning back.
McCann and Lowden play their characters like fish trying to fit into a pond that’s already full up and half drained. The locals’ disdain for the two men is easily understood. Yet, the accidental tragedy of the film will have many indecisive about whether right and wrong even exist in this world. Viewers wishing to pick a side will end up caught in a vice-like grip as neither side are truly right in their actions. Especially as Calibre speeds up towards its unthinkable and yet inevitable conclusion.
The finale of the film is a slashed to the bone, teeth grinding half hour. Márk Györi’s camerawork seamlessly transitions from haunted Romanticism to a queasy but beautifully lit backwoods survivalism. This is helped in no small part by Chris Wyatt’s carefully chosen cuts ensuring we see everything without ever seeing more than we should. Calibre is a film with teeth and muscle but also a heart that bleeds for everyone. It sinks you into a grey area before stalking you into a corner.