Saying Calibre is tense is a lot like saying getting shot in the stomach hurts. Calibre is paralysing: pinning you to your seat, defenseless, transfixed to the screen – unable to do anything but hope against hope that all will turn out well.
Jack Lowden and Martin McCann star as Vaughn and Marcus, a couple of Edinburgh socialites heading north for a hunting trip. The town they land themselves at is faltering in the face of urban development: a new country club, less than an hour away, has taken out the hunting trade; local businesses are failing; the community is falling apart. Although cautious, and at times sinister, the village people largely welcome the pair – they are, after all, investment potential. However, whilst hunting, a tragic accident means that Vaughn and Marcus need to escape from the area as quickly as possible. Stranded in the village, and desperate to seem innocuous, the townsfolk begin to close in on the duo, sending them into a narrative of darkness, hard choices, and extreme danger.
The secret to making a tense film is in pacing. I feel like I’ve complained a lot about pacing over the course of this year’s festival, but Calibre really nails it in this department. Things get bad rather quickly – even before the accident, which occurs early on in any case – and they get exponentially worse as time passes. The cumulative effect is that Vaughn and Marcus appear to be continuously digging their own graves, whilst the townsfolk relentlessly close in. A brutal load of tension is thrust upon the audience – unable to relax for the vast majority of the runtime. It helps that we actually care a little for the characters: they’re likeable, and, although they may make some decisions that we would call wrong, they never do anything unrealistic (or anything that I could be sure I wouldn’t do in such a situation). Calibre presents, in effect, a series of situations in which the protagonists have to make tougher and tougher calls, until eventually we reach a path-fork pushing them, and us, to breaking point.
The performances are, putting it mildly, impressive – Lowden and McCann are characters thrust into a waking nightmare more extreme than anything they’ve seen before. Calibre is ripe with horror imagery: dark forests, secluded villages, and cultish organisations. But, despite these roots, it feels startlingly real. As the film progresses, it does indeed fall into extreme territory – yet it’s quite easy to see how a situation would evolve into such an abyss. A large part of that is down to how Vaughn and Marcus react to their surroundings – never over or underplaying the destruction in front of them. Similarly, Tony Curran is perfectly cast as a local leader, reaching for peace but pressured by his townsfolk to seek violence and retribution. His is a quiet, brooding performance where stares and glances say more than sparse dialogue – sinister and comforting at the same time.
If I’m being honest with you, Calibre makes for an unenjoyable, uncomfortable watch. It’s sinister, unpleasant, and downright nasty. But it’s not feelgood cinema that we remember: it’s cinema that makes us uncomfortable; cinema that makes us feel something; cinema that shows us something terrifying, forbidden, and uncontrolled. Calibre is, in this sense, unforgettable.