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-[Film Reviews]-, British Cinema, EUROPEAN CINEMA

‘Calibre’ (2018): Review

Directed by: Matt Palmer || Produced by: Alastair Clark, Anna Griffin

Screenplay by: Matt Palmer || Starring: Jack Lowden, Martin McCann, Tony Curran, Ian Pirie, Kate Bracken, Kitty Lovett, Cal MacAninch

Music by: Anne Nikitin || Cinematography: Mark Gyori || Edited by: Chris Wyatt || Country: United Kingdom || Language: English

Running Time: 101 minutes

I primarily use my Netflix account to watch Netflix Original Movies rather than Netflix Original Series, which I suspect is unlike most of the company’s subscriber base. Most of my social circle at home and at work gravitate toward either Original Series like Stranger Things (2016, 2017, 2019), Orange is the New Black (2013-2019), Black Mirror (2011-2019, originally a BBC production) and various Marvel Comics shows, or non-original “comfort food” sitcoms like The Office (2005-2013) or Friends (1994-2004), the latter two of which shall soon leave the streaming network. For my part, I’ve always gravitated toward the feature-film format over that of long-form narrative television, classical sitcoms, or even anthology series. I enjoy some of the more popular web television exclusives like Stranger Things, but on average, if I happen to watch any of the Netflix Original Series, my curiosity is most peaked by weird stuff like The Dark Crystal (1982) prequel series, Age of Resistance (2019), or David Fincher and Tim Miller’s Love, Death + Robots (2019). But that’s about it. I simply prefer the concise, self-contained format of movies.

Jack Lowden (left) prepares to take down a buck with Martin McCann (right) as his spotter.

I also believe Netflix’s original feature-film content has received an unfair bad rap due to high-profile controversies like Bright (2017) or trendy fads like Bird Box (2018). Critical successes like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018) or Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Irishman (2019) aren’t exceptions to the rule, but rather the tip of the spear (see Triple Frontier [2019], Apostle [2018], The Ritual [2017] The Divines [2016], The Ballad of Buster Scruggs [2018], etc.). I mean, for God’s sake, they even distributed a “chick-flick” I liked, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018). Whether it’s mid-budgeted genre films, high-profile documentaries, romantic dramas, niche foreign thrillers, or even big-budget blockbusters that aren’t part of an established franchise, Netflix provides a home for films that have no place in today’s theatrical ecosystem. I’m not sponsored by them, I swear — though I could sure use the money — but I do believe the streaming service deserves credit for helping to preserve artistic diversity in modern filmmaking. 

Another example of Netflix distributing a smaller feature that would otherwise be relegated to film festivals and torrent sites is the Scottish thriller, Calibre, written and directed by Matt Palmer. His first feature-length movie, Calibre promises great things for Palmer’s career if he can replicate the intensity and gut-wrenching emotion of this story, a sort of modern day Tell-Tale Heart (1843) about a pair of friends from Edinburgh (Jack Lowden and Martin McCann) embarking on a hunting trip in the Scottish Highlands. After a terrible accident on that trip, Lowden and McCann must grapple with the terrible consequences of their actions, with heady themes of guilt, mob justice, and survival permeating throughout this nail-biting thriller. Calibre is not only one of the better thrillers I’ve seen in years, but also one of the best morality plays.

On paper, Calibre feels like the sort of classical novels teenagers read in their high-school English courses, but not the boring ones that nobody likes (e.g. The Scarlet Letter [1850]). Palmer’s strong characterizations of his two co-leads, as well as various supporting characters from the local Highlands village, feel like characters in a stage play a la The Mist (2007, another quasi-morality play). Lowden and McCann are vessels for the audience, portrayed as two sides of the same coin (one’s headstrong and aggressive, the other more passive and empathetic), while the local village is akin to a microcosm of society. Palmer’s direction, by contrast, is much less flashy and rarely calls attention to itself, save for a few pivotal moments of framing that lead to the aforementioned horrific accident that puts our leads in so much trouble. No, much of Palmer’s command of the camera is represented by what he chooses not to do, his show of restraint: He uses little music throughout, his scenes are tightly edited and don’t overstay their welcome, and exposition is minimized to streamline pacing and avoid narrative repetition. Palmer lets his story speak for itself, a story that feels like a natural feature-length extension of a student short-film, as opposed to a limited short-film premise engorged to a feature-length running time (I’m looking at you, Ti West).

Palmer ends his dramatic story in a morally ambiguous fashion that feels justified, doesn’t strain credulity, and leaves the viewer pondering its conclusion without being confused by it. A good ending may look straightforward to most audiences, but it’s worth emphasizing to readers that a realistic and satisfying conclusion to a grounded thriller like this is no easy task. I can’t recall how many thrillers I’ve seen that stumbled at the finish line because their filmmakers either played it safe or tried too hard to leave their audience floored. Calibre goes for that hallowed middle-ground, the coveted “third option” your audience won’t expect but isn’t based on shock-value, and succeeds.

The Highland village locals force Lowden to make a terrible choice as penance for his terrible crimes.

I’m not advocating that Calibre is the thriller of the decade, but rather reminding myself how long it’s been since I watched a solid, standalone thriller in theatres. Come to think of it, when’s the last time I watched a memorable new release thriller in any venue? The fact that Netflix gives a platform, as imperfect as it may be, to promising young filmmakers who take artistic risks despite little to no industry clout, is the reason why modern cinephiles no longer have to resort to online piracy to appreciate them. Hell, many films like Calibre might never have been distributed or even produced at all without a marketable, sustainable platform from which to view them. Matt Palmer’s debut production, a sort of modern day Scottish rendition of The Tell-Tale Heart, is a powerful cinematic drama I’m glad cinephiles the world over can appreciate with the touch of a button.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Well acted, well staged, and remarkably efficient, Calibre establishes a microcosmic, tense narrative that crescendos into an unforgettable third act bursting with emotional resonance. That its characters are so otherwise ordinary and relatable underscores how effective the film is as a contemporary cinematic fable. It’s the sort of morality play that impresses both with its substance and execution.

However… neither Calibre’s execution nor its substance is innovative regardless how you examine it. The film owes much of its power to the legacy of classical literature and the groundbreaking visual suspense pioneered by Alfred Hitchcock, but then again so does the entire thriller genre.

—> RECOMMENDED

? Jack Lowden: I’m so sorry. || Tony Curran: That’s not gonna be enough. That’s not gonna be nearly enough.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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