Matt Palmer’s feature-length writer-director debut Calibre is a film that flirts at two particular things and/or identities. First, its intriguing and poetic socioeconomic subtext hints at a greater meaning to be extracted, making its relatively familiar setup less familiar. Vaughn (Jack Lowden) is a father-to-be, and a lifelong pal of his, Marcus (Martin McCann), takes him on a hunting trip deep into the Scottish Highlands. They meet the friendly locals that night at a nearby pub, one of whom admits to them that the tourism business has been slowly running dry thanks to a country club further north. The two continue smashing down drinks in celebration of reuniting once more, eagerly awaiting the next morning’s hunt.
As expected, things quickly go south. While lining up a perfect head shot for a doe, Vaughn accidentally fatally shoots a young boy. Panicking, he tries reasoning with the boy’s father when he arrives, but once it’s clear that may not be possible, fearing for Vaughn’s life, Marcus fatally shoots the father. As parallels go for setting up a narrative, Calibre’s is pretty damn effective. A universal symbol of wealth and privilege bleeding a working-class town/region dry of its financial prosperity, metaphorically killing it, meanwhile two city slickers embodying that very privilege take two locals’ lives – as well as the additional emotional context of Vaughn unintentionally murdering a child as he awaits one of his own.
One would be hard-pressed to find another opening act as powerful and engaging, at least in support of a well-worn genre premise. Unfortunately, Calibre also hints being a competent thriller, and a lack of follow through on this palpable undercurrent is an integral reason why it only goes so far. Not all good films require deeper meaning for maximum enjoyment, and while it’s one thing critiquing a film like Aaron Katz’s Gemini for failing to follow through on potential ideas, ultimately accepting that such thoughts might be our own projections upon a narrative, it’s an entirely other, more justifiable thing criticizing something like Palmer’s film for not seeing its own attempted meaning through when concerted effort is made using certain philosophical inspirations as a key piece to understanding the film in its totality.
After the first act’s curiously quick conclusion, various minor characters continue referencing the town’s financial worries as their nearby hunting sites lose favor to more decadent settings. One volatile man even openly antagonizes our two protagonists and despairs at the prospect of having to apologize to and ask forgiveness from a pair of city folk. Until the final act, it remains tangibly evident that Palmer’s inclusion of this implicit-yet-explicit thrust may build toward a resolute, if not comprehensive commentary on the exploitation and gradual extinguishing of rural economies by more metropolitan civility. Upon the narrative’s climax and final quarter, however, it becomes increasingly apparent that such was present only for mere lip service to grander concepts as well as masking the hefty amount of nothing moving the plot forward.
Not only are these prescient socioeconomic themes not meaningfully tied to the proceedings or characters to culminate the film with a thought-provoking message, the film seemingly can’t decide what to do with its narrative aside from the basics, unwittingly revealing an overall creative void stifling pacing and overall engagement. Individuals commit a heinous crime, go to great lengths to cover it up and have to overcome conveniently-timed obstacles to go unscathed/unnoticed, ultimately failing for the sake of easy drama – you get the idea. The narrative commits itself to these perfunctory and remarkably few beats to the point where the path towards inevitable conflict becomes a disinterested slog, perhaps most harmed by a pair of characters whose compositions and dynamic are respectively ill-defined and lacking in dimension and growth.
Lowden and McCann may admirably commit themselves to the material, as do their supporting costars, but their respective protagonists and relationship to one another are never further expanded for greater intrigue as the story pushes them from one hindrance toward escape to another, remaining the same individuals throughout and robbing the denouement of even scant emotional impact. This realization is made especially painful by scenes that stretch themselves thin without immediately clear purpose other than to potentially satisfy a need for a superficially substantial runtime. Sometimes, it seems Palmer’s sole intention was to place these particular persons, given their opposing traits, in exponentially worsening situations to perhaps examine how pain and guilt differently consumes them, but they only react non-compelling ways that ensure the material never deviates from formula.
Given the conclusion Palmer has in mind for their drastic misadventure in conjunction with the intellectual ambitions actually driving the storytelling, though actualized as sound and fury signifying nothing, Calibre surprisingly comes across as mean-spirited without necessity or point. The shreds of commentary somehow remaining may somewhat humanize the circumstances, relatively eliminating the presence of antagonistic forces and motivations, and yet the final product is utterly devoid of the particulars to let this feed into the tension and instead further reduces this effort to hollow genre mimicry. Though in all fairness, to suggest the film’s expected narrative progression engenders any tension at all is giving it too much credit.
Calibre is the soul-sucking epitome of laudable intentions undone by poor execution, and it’s difficult imagining how any amount or combination of improvements could elevate its current standing to ‘passable.’ It is an abject failure to its core, though not of the sort like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, making one rant languidly, explaining why it doesn’t work; there was too much hope, particularly communicated in the first act, for it to be of that kind. Instead, it most resembles a picture like this past February’s The Party: loaded with big talk and politically-inclined ideas falling face first as an incomplete mess. Ironically, I’ve given it almost as much time here as I did Fallen Kingdom, and that very thought has reintroduced me to a similar level of rage.