My streaming gem: why you should watch Caliber | Detective novels
Aaccidentally shooting someone in the head can really depress a holiday. Just ask the two leads in Netflix’s unbearably tense Scottish thriller Caliber. Marcus (Martin McCann) and Vaughn (Jack Lowden) are two old friends who embark on one last journey before Vaughn ruins his social life forever by having a child. Marcus, played with fascinating intensity by McCann, takes them on a hunting trip to the Scottish highlands. It’s a slow build up as they leave the city behind and journey into the beautiful Scottish wilderness. They stay in a remote village where the locals have just a hint of The Wicker Man about them – you half-expect Christopher Lee to be out in a kilt at any moment. When one of them casually mentions that this weekend is also the date of an obscure ancient solstice festival with a bonfire, you start to really worry about the boys. And your worries aren’t unfounded, although the trouble they get into is of their own making.
Trouble begins the moment it arrives after Marcus buys a drink for a local girl and almost butts heads with a jealous man. Local bigwig Logan’s “keep an eye out for your friend” warning has a ring of ominous foreshadowing about it. Unfortunately for mild-mannered Vaughn, it’s clear that Marcus is responsible, which is a bit like naming a lit stick of dynamite as a babysitter. Marcus is the kind of character who finds trouble just by existing. He’s Withnail without the jokes. The kind of guy you’d run a mile from if you had any common sense, but you don’t because he’s your friend. The guys wake up the next morning with a hangover and head out into the woods to kill something. They succeed but needless to say, if you tried to get their prey’s head up above the chimney, you’d get ridiculously funny looks from the neighbors. It’s a sickening moment that now imbues every second of the film’s remaining runtime with a dramatic tension that turns your palms into reservoirs. Watching him is excruciating, like being stuck in a broken down subway with stomach cramps. And as the guys panic and make more and more bad decisions to cover their tracks, the situation only gets worse. It’s a measure of the film’s quality that this rather unoriginal premise is still full of surprises, twists and twists. Just when you think you know where it’s headed, it veers off in thrilling fashion.
The deft manipulation of these well-worn genre tropes is down to the talent of Matt Palmer, the writer and director of this fantastic feature debut. It’s the kind of confident work you’d expect from a filmmaker with a lot more experience, and its raw power is reminiscent of some of Ben Wheatley’s best things. Palmer’s script is taut and clever, and it elicits wonderful performances from its actors, from the menacing thug Brian McClay (Ian Pirie) to the simpering wreckage of Vaughn. The entire film is shot beautifully by cinematographer Márk Györi, who manages to transform the Scottish highlands from a postcard into a prison as the story unfolds. Its beauty becomes claustrophobic as the net closes around our boys and the landscape meant to offer a relaxing escape becomes a maze.
Caliber’s power is such that it could make even the most psychotic American big game hunter dentist think twice about picking up a gun. If Walter Palmer had watched this before his trip to Africa, Cecil the Lion might still be with us. It packs more punch than movies with 100 times the budget and shows you don’t need a superhero to attract an audience. You need atmosphere. And the atmosphere evoked by Palmer et al does not let you go for a second. In fact, even after the credits roll and you’ve returned to the latest reality show, you’ll still be thinking of the final haunting image as New Jersey’s Chad licks maple syrup from an influencer. It’s a film that also explores big questions: what would you do to save someone’s life? What would you do to save yours? What is justice? But never gives easy answers – except maybe one. What would you do if you found yourself chased through the woods by a group of angry Scots? To run.