Writer-director Matt Palmer received the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival for his feature-length debut, Calibre. This film takes place in the beautiful, albeit eerie Scottish Highlands, a place that I myself have always dreamed of visiting. As an avid watcher of the Outlander TV series, I’ve always seen Scotland as a big, green, clean-smelling oasis; a way to escape from noise, work and woes. When I sat down to watch this particular film, I never thought that I would walk away with a different idea of what a Scottish vacation could turn into. Talk about a dream-killer.
I now know that I will never be able to trust someone trying to sell me a dream getaway to the Scottish Highlands. They will omit things…important things. “The locals are friendly and they will have your back, so long as you toe the line. If you cross that proverbial line…Well, you may not get the opportunity to rate your stay by clicking on some Travelocity stars”, says the too honest travel guide. No, I just don’t see it going that way at all. I mean, in all seriousness, I like to think that the majority of tourists tend to visit unfamiliar places with the general knowledge that they are inherently stepping into the natural habitat of others whose cultures, habits and idea of a good time may differ from theirs. So of course, at the beginning of this film, upon learning from the dreamy whisperings of young lovers that a hunting trip was coming up for a couple of lifelong Scotty pals, I already knew that something was going to go very wrong.
Best friends from boarding school, Vaughn Carter and Marcus Trenton, are two strapping young lads who just don’t get to see each other enough. Like all young friendships, the parties involved just got too busy to keep in touch. But they are determined to change that. Vaughn (Jack Lowden) reminds me of myself. Quiet, but not so much of an introvert that he has no social life whatsoever, Vaughn is excited about his future. He has a baby on the way. He is in love and it’s obvious that happiness suits him. Marcus (Martin McCann) is the carefree best friend. A bachelor with no ties, he enjoys a good time with or without illegal substances and loose women. He’s not necessarily a bad guy, he just never grew up.
The colors of Scotland are not lost, however dreary they may appear, as the friends drive through the hills of the Highlands. Everything is green or brown, then brownish green, then greenish brown. This is natural and nature tranquilizes the soul. Wide shots allow the viewer to take it all in, this land that man has not yet obliterated. I sit back in my recliner and I simply say, “That’s pretty”. Palmer gives me this before he punches me in the face. I will give him that, at least.
Hunting was the trademark and breadwinning tourist attraction for the area and once boomed during Marcus’ childhood when he and his father made memories hunting and stalking Gunn’s Wood, as it is aptly named. But alas, a recession has reached as high as the Highlands. Despite this, Scottish tradition calls for a warm smile and a stiff drink at the Culcarran Inn and Hunting Lodge, complete with the Stag’s Head Pub to give it character. So far, I’m wondering if I have selected the wrong movie or if my Netflix is a liar. I thought this was supposed to be a thriller? Why am I not stressed out? The low lighting and warm atmosphere of this bar is making me want to find something plaid to wrap myself in. I’ve about decided to head toward the kitchen to find that bottle of whiskey that I keep for special occasions.
Logan (Tony Curran) is proud of his home and is more than willing to introduce himself to newcomers. Now I can’t go to the kitchen because I swear I have seen this guy in something else, so he must be important. Please believe me when I tell you that this is the understatement of the year. As a child, my mother would say to me, “The world does not revolve around you.” But she would never finish her thoughts on that matter and so I was left to wonder, “Who in fact DOES the world actually revolve around?” Logan. It revolves around Logan; at least here it does. But I’m okay with this because right from the get-go, I decide that I like Logan. He is cool and collected, amiable and well-spoken. It never fails that when I like a character, he or she dies, so here I sit trying not to like him too much. But honestly, if Logan were to perish, the world around Gunn’s Wood and the Culcarran Inn would stop turning.
There are other honorable mentions in this game. Kara, the pretty bottle blonde, whose aloof, sexual liberator attitude makes me question her judgment, saunters into our peaceful pub with Iona, the typical modest girl next door, forever resembling the everyday female that inevitably rallies every single female audience member to their side as soon as they first appear on-screen in a parka and boots. Take a look at these girls in your mind. I mean, what a convenient match for Vaughn and Marcus! Who would have thought? No, now I know I am just trying to force themes from this film that I feel the need for, as I know they will come to me eventually. With no other drama, save a caring onlooker warning Marcus to stay away from Kara, with no detailed explanation, I meme myself into submission. “Keep Calm and Netflix On”.
Have I mentioned that Vaughn is just a good guy to have in your life? Iona is a lot like him. She is the cool one, the calm one, the clothed one. But while Marcus takes the bait and ducks out with his newfound companion, Vaughn politely declines any further advances and every female watching punches her husband in the arm and yells, “You wouldn’t do that for me!” Cue the eye rolls from all men everywhere. Moral crossroads are a must in film. I personally enjoy watching a character come to a point where a choice must be made. Vaughn could have chosen to take advantage of the opportunity, but truthfulness wins out, despite the other choice being more fun and maybe even a little less awkward. I am really loving Vaughn and his integrity, but these boys really need to just go to bed. Why? Because this is supposed to be a hunting trip. Let’s go hunting.
Forest scenes come with their own sense of anxiety, but this forest has a fairytale aspect that I can’t help but love. There’s light coming through the canopy. The greens of the trees are lush and hydrating, but the hair on my neck is standing up. I can’t tell if our leading men are being watched, if I’m just being paranoid, or if they are. Well played, Palmer. My emotions are being preyed upon and still, nothing has even happened yet. Of course, here comes a deer. Of course, Vaughn, the less experienced of the two predators is aiming the gun, with whispered encouragement from Marcus. Of course, the shot is missed. Good. I hate when animals are senselessly harmed. But Palmer laughs at my naivety. Someone has to go and if not Bambi, then an innocent child takes it in the middle of his forehead.
This is my confession. This scene actually caused me to yell out, which I don’t think I have ever done in any movie ever and I consider myself a hardened horror fan. This scene showed me that I am nothing. Here is the genius of the film. It all happens so fast that it makes you wonder if it actually happened or not. I was ready for Vaughn to wake up from a nightmare, drenched in sweat. He didn’t. This was done so well that I was able to imagine myself being the one that pulled the trigger. As dark and frightening as this self-imagery is, I honestly feel like if I had a gun in my hand and accidentally shot a child, this is what it would feel like; the real versus the unreal, where the shock could kill you in your tracks, but the chemicals in your brain band together to become a self-defense mechanism to save your sanity. The conclusion has not yet been reached that this is irreversible. We can still go back just a few seconds and change it all.
The real world all comes back into focus, as the father of ‘Sammy’ stumbles upon a hell so personalized that all it lacks is monogrammed initials. Out of the forest floor, another fork in the road appears. We know our fork presents us with two options. Vaughn is a good man, he knows how to make the right choice and he will be able to take control of this tragic situation. But Vaughn cannot control Marcus. Now there are bodies to conceal and dispose of later. Thank you, Marcus. This is no longer fun. The accident must be reported because that is exactly what it was…an accident. Thank you, Vaughn, but now it is too late and I am in the grip of the Best British Film of the year.
While Vaughn and Marcus are dragging me down into their abyss, the townsfolk are still being townsfolk in preparation for Alban Eiler, the Solstice Festival. Alban Eiler, the Druidic holiday where nature does a rare and beautiful thing, she balances everything. Light for dark and dark for light, the solstice causes the sun and moon to remain in the sky for the same amount of time. I thought Vaughn and Marcus balanced each other out, but as the film progresses, close-up filming shows the light dying in the eyes of our beloved Vaughn and the fires of paranoia burning in Marcus.
Alban Eiler is in full swing while Marcus and Vaughn try to get away from their sins, but car problems leave them stranded. Car problems, as in, slashed tires from locals who find out about Marcus’ drugged-up night on the town with Kara. We find out she is a relative of Logan. Lo and behold, poor little Sammy and his late father are also relatives of Logan. Logan is told that Sammy and his father never came home from their hiking trip. Logan throws together a search party and wants Vaughn and Marcus to help. Logan, Logan, Logan. If you haven’t gathered at this point, Logan is at the top of the Pagan totem pole and I am now very afraid for our friends. All is left to interpretation on Logan and the townsfolk. Do not look for answers like I did. You won’t find any. I can, however, say that the influence of the Druids never truly left the Highlands. Regardless and not unexpectedly, the newcomer hunters are under suspicion, but Logan keeps everyone calm in order to give them the benefit of the doubt. That is until the bodies are found and Vaughn and Marcus make an ill-attempted run for it.
Logan and his crew receive the full truth via confession from Vaughn upon capture and brutal interrogation. While the masses scream for his death, Logan knows what death to the tourist will bring. With a missing person comes the police, prison sentences, and a further economic hit to a community that just did not ask for this, nor do they deserve it. The people of this small town are not villains. They did not commit a crime. Marcus and Vaughn committed crimes, but are they bad men?
Palmer, as a writer, shows me that not everything is black and white. Good and evil exist, but so do the greys in between. I feel for all involved. You will feel for all involved. Everyone loses something in the end. I would keep going with this thought and say that no-one wins. But surviving is winning, right? Everyone has a cross they must bear and a crossroads they must meet and a choice they must make. When right feels wrong and wrong feels right, the fork in the road may blur. Calibre uses humanity against itself to show that nature will have her balance in the end and according to Logan, “Right is a long way gone”.