A lads’ hunting weekend begins with beers and banter, only to swiftly sober up when two Edinburgh townies wind up shooting entirely the wrong prey. But getting out of the woods isn’t even close to getting in the clear in “Calibre,” a sensationally well-executed nerve-mangler that ought to do for the majestic Scottish Highlands what “Deliverance” did for Appalachia. That is, if smart genre fiends seek out Matt Palmer’s majorly promising debut feature on Netflix — where it’s set to bow globally on June 29, just one week after its home-turf premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival. That’s a mixed blessing for a film that certainly deserves the broad exposure of international streaming, but whose natural habitat is the midnight-movie circuit: Its jackknife shocks, clammy atmospherics and head-filling soundscape would best be enjoyed (or at least endured, at its most palpitating moments) in the immersive darkness of a cinema.
Not that you need a big screen to determine the level of craft and confidence on display in all aspects of “Calibre,” from Palmer’s clean, lean scripting to Márk Györi’s baleful, autumn-chill camerawork to a lead performance of through-the-wringer commitment by rising Scots star Jack Lowden. Bigger assignments await the entire team, though they’d be lucky to get much better ones: For Palmer, whose short horror films have accumulated some festival mileage between them, this should act as an aggressively polished calling card to any prospective producers of taut, tension-led mainstream genre assignments. And while it’s hard to shake thoughts of John Boorman’s aforementioned man-versus-wilderness thriller as the film cranks things up, Palmer draws on what appears to be a broad church of influences, from Walter Hill to the meanest, most streamlined work of Ben Wheatley.
With minimal setup and on-the-fly character sketching, “Calibre” gets swiftly to business. Young, mild-mannered dad-to-be Vaughn (Lowden) reluctantly leaves his fiancée to spend the weekend with his reckless, randy, coke-snorting best friend Marcus (Martin McCann), who has planned a Highlands hunting expedition as a kind of final farewell to their old days of fancy-free fraternity.
Even if the trip has been arranged for his benefit, it’s clear from the outset that Vaughn views his attendance more as a favor to his untethered pal: Palmer’s script is tacitly perceptive on clashing modes of masculinity, as well as the shifting, drifting nature of male friendships. Still, things start off cheerfully enough as they arrive at their rustic woodside lodge, kicking off a night’s carousing and flirting with two village girls — albeit to the consternation of surly male locals, of whom only the older, community-minded Logan (Tony Curran) makes friendly overtures.
Yet when the lads, a little worse for wear, head into the woods the next morning, catastrophe strikes: After training his rifle on an obliging deer, Vaughn shoots, only for an interloping child hiker to get fatally caught in the firing line. With a dead boy suddenly on their hands, the shell-shocked men somehow worsen matters in self-defensive panic, with Marcus’s macho rashness and Vaughn’s passivity making for a precipitous pile-up of bad decisions as they cover their tracks.
All that, and the film’s just getting started. The fallout from this horrific accident proceeds in ways that are both grimly inevitable and gut-knottingly uncertain, as the villagers gradually sense something amiss — and Palmer’s poised Hitchcockian tension tactics give way to a more visceral rush of horror. An Olivier Award-winning stage actor now settling into a quietly potent, empathetic screen presence, Lowden impressively holds it together through all these key changes, even when his character emphatically does not. He has a wily, wicked foil in Irish star McCann (following his lead turn in “The Survivalist,” not an actor afraid to be in the wars), and it’s their fraught but convincing bond that holds our sympathy even through their most reprehensible actions.
If nothing here is exactly new, it’s the sheer, breathless precision and momentum of “Calibre’s” assembly that keeps it startling. The film’s secret weapon may be gifted editor Chris Wyatt (“God’s Own Country,” “’71”), who keeps the pace brisk but also unpredictable, often choosing to linger on quiet, conversation-driven scenes that reveal their teeth in their own good time. Györi, in his highest-profile assignment since Peter Strickland’s “Katalin Varga,” works wonders with the weather-saturated, bracken-tangled Scottish mountainscape, alternately playing up its menace or magnificence from scene to scene. Ben Baird’s sound design, meanwhile, is a thing of fretful beauty, seamlessly meshing a barrage of natural effects with Anne Nikitin’s creaking, squeaking, screeching score — there are points in “Calibre” when it might seem safer to close your eyes, but the filmmaking won’t let go that easily.