It speaks to how quickly the words "Netflix original" have come to mean "like a direct-to-video film from the '90s, only somehow even sadder" that a pretty straightforward thriller like Calibre seems like a small masterpiece. I mean, for God's sake you guys, it's a Netflix genre film that tells an interesting story with well-defined characters! It's nice to look at! Holy shit, roll out the Oscars!

But no, for real, Calibre is good & worth your time. The film, the feature debut of writer-director Matt Palmer, is a very '70s-esque of the terrible things that happens when urbanites head into the countryside to do Manly Things. Vaughn (Jack Lowden) lives a quiet life in Edinburgh, happy to sit at home with his pregnant fiancée, but he's got one of those friends that so many approaching-middle-age guys in movies do: the wild one who never quite grew up, the one Vaugn has definitely have outgrown & knows it, but habit and respect for the old days means that he can't bring himself to ever stand his ground and say no. And this weekend, that friend, Marcus (Martin McCann) - finance expert by day, cokehead partyboy by night - has decided to celebrate/mourn the impending end of Vaughn's irresponsible childless years by arranging a hunting trip to the Highlands. A hunting trip being something that Marcus is going to enjoy a lot more than Vaughn, no matter whose weekend this is supposed to be.

I know this last fact because Vaughn states it outright in dialogue to one of the locals at the bar which appears to be the only viable commercial business in the town we're staying, and this brings us to maybe the most persistent problem with Calibre. Namely, it's very script-ey. Palmer has a lot of intuitive talent, it is clear, but he's also making his first feature, and for all its strengths, which can be considerable, this is a very nervous film. Particularly in its exposition, it has a bad habit of taking things too slow and putting its themes front-and-center, with one very important exception that we'll get to.

Back to Vaughn and Marcus, who've just arrived in one of those tiny movie villages that just reek of ominous threats. The locals view them as obvious threats, with only the apparent exception of garrulous old Logan (Tony Curran), and even he has the kind of conspicuous friendliness where you can't quite tell if a smile is warm, or if it's meant to show off the bearer's fangs. Even so, given that this pair is the first set of hunting tourists in a while - a hunting club has recently opened not too far away, and it's taken a huge toll on the town's economy - so the locals are mostly willing to overlook the strangers' city ways. Though they're definitely less willing to overlook Marcus's infatuation with the local young women.

Palmer makes the best of his setting, relying on the audience's genre-trained mistrust of small towns in British movies where everybody sits in the underlit pub and glowers, creating a pungent sense of uneasiness before the plot even kicks in. And when it does, Calibre turns into a rock solid psychological thriller of a sort that still gets made, but not very often, and it's maybe best to not know what happens in detail. Let us say that, when they go out into the woods to hunt, a terrible accident occurs. And oh! how very well the film packages that accident! If you would know what truly brave editing looks like, you might consider the way that editor Chris Wyatt has apparently counted out to the very frame how long something needs to be onscreen for it to register. It helps that the thing is blue in a brown and green space; it helps that there's a shocking in-camera shift in shot scale right before the cut. At any rate, when the accident occurs, it is fast, sudden, and sickening, putting us directly into Vaughn's head as he slowly processes what has just happened.

So an accident, and then Vaughn and Marcus turn a bad thing into the worst imaginable thing by overreacting - Marcus's impulsivity and Vaughn's inability to tell Marcus no prove to be a deadly combination, and here does Calibre become an absolutely fascinating paranoia thriller. Basically, the rest of the film consists of the two men knowing that they have fucked up a lot, and finding themselves in the grip of the guilty man's obsession that since they know what they've done, everybody else must know as well, and is just toying with them. Add in Vaughn's fairly obvious desire to be found out and made to answer for his acts, and you have the ingredients of a pretty fine thriller, in which all of the tension comes entirely from internal sources rather than an external threat.

It's a tight piece of craftsmanship from top to bottom, with notably strong cinematography by Márk Györi that uses a contrast between the overall Scottish gloom and occasional harsh lights to generate a queasy feeling of grim mood punctuated by blasts of terror, as well as Wyatt's impressive editing, which keeps returning to Marcus and especially Vaughn in medium and close-up shots, always reaffirming their perpetual state of anxious looking. The actors are also vital to creating the film's effect: they both have the jumpy alertness of a hunted animal, but filtered in Marcus's case through a sort of brash bravado and the apparent belief that if he just keeps moving fast nobody will be able to catch, whereas Vaughn is more just stunned and guilt struck, with Lowden doing terrific work in letting us see exactly how his character is judging himself as a man and father-to-be (this last point is the one that the film doesn't over-emphasise, though it easily could have).

Once it gets going, the film generally doesn't ease up, and the ending avoids the trap of losing steam once the nature of the action shifts from paranoia to more general external conflicts. I do think the final few scenes try very hard to make everything a bit too tidy, especially around the theme of friendships that need to be dropped for personal growth; it is, again, a film that is conspicuous about its writing, and everything great in the directing, cinematography, acting, editing, and sound design tends to be great despite the script, not along with the script. Still, as first features go, it's a doozy: as eager as I am to see where Palmer goes next, even if his career goes straight to hell after this, at least he got this one out of his system first.