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Mistakes make fine plot devices

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Two new films proceed from the stuff of nightmares. A horrible mistake—a very real accident, in fact—provokes a basic ethical dilemma: what do you do next?

From that starting point, each movie goes in radically different directions. Calibre, a new Netflix original from Scotland, becomes a searing thriller about friendship and revenge. M.F.A. (2017), just out on video, uses the same themes to plumb one of today’s hottest topics.

Both will certainly hold your attention, but Calibre is clearly a cut above the ordinary. The film is both excruciating and engrossing in its dissection of impossible choices. Though just as serious, M.F.A. is more slick and less realistic.

Winner of Edinburgh Film Festival’s prestigious Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film, Calibre also scored five nods from the BAFTA Awards, Scotland. All well-deserved, though for now American viewers will find the film only on Netflix, which has become a treasure trove in recent months.

Written and directed by Matt Palmer, the story is about two friends—Vaughan (Jack Lowden) and Marcus (Martin McCann)—on a weekend hunting trip in the Scottish highlands. Vaughan is happily married, soon to be a first-time father, and a reluctant hunter at best. Marcus is more independent and carefree as well as far more experienced with guns.

The first night, they go to a pub, where they have a near-confrontation with a surly bar hound, and an unexpected pairing with two local beauties. Vaughan stays true to his wife, but Marcus is ready and willing for fun.

The next day, both men find far more than either bargained for. Vaughan accidentally shoots a young boy in the woods, and that’s only the beginning of the nightmare.

Watching Calibre, about which I knew nothing except that it was not a comedy, I experienced the same kind of growing dread I felt when I first saw Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs in the theater. In that 1971 classic, Dustin Hoffman is the outsider in a remote Cornwall village, and finds himself prey to violent forces he could never have imagined. From the first scene, Peckinpah began to ratchet up the tension and suspense, neither of which lets up until the apocalyptic bloodbath at the end.

In terms of violence, however, Calibre is not nearly as graphic Bloody Sam’s masterpiece. Instead, writer/director Palmer explores the turmoil, at first psychological but soon physical, that drives the two friends to try to escape the consequences of their actions. There is absolutely nothing stereotypical about either character, or the terrific performances by Lowden and McCann.

To top it off, Calibre ends with an unexpected resolution and a concluding frame-shot that’s as memorable and perfect in its own way as Peckinpah’s ambiguous close-up of Hoffman at the end of Straw Dogs.

Unfortunately, the conclusion of M.F.A. is not nearly so effective, but the film as a whole should appeal to viewers who like their vengeance served with appetite.

Francesca Eastwood, steely-eyed Clint’s 25-year-old daughter, plays Noelle, an aspiring art student at fictional Balboa University. She is the victim of a date rape perpetrated by Luke (Peter Vack), a popular stud in her small class. When she later confronts the bastard, he blows her off, remarking how much she enjoyed it.

Understandably angered, Noelle kills him—quite by accident. But then she gets the bug.

Irritated by the passivity of other abuse victims whose attackers were acquitted by the courts and school authorities, Noelle decides to go into Charles Bronson mode and take out the trash. At this point, M.F.A. almost becomes a grindhouse revenge chick flick like I Spit on Your Grave or Ms. 45. However, an important subplot involving Noelle’s best friend Skye (Leah McKendrick, who also wrote the script) puts M.F.A. on a less predictable course.

M.F.A. is clearly intended to strike a serious note about the sexual abuse of women, and for the most part, director Natalia Leite maintains a balanced approach to the subject. Stepping out of her dad’s considerable shadow, Francesca Eastwood acquits herself well, too. Still, the film’s stagey conclusion is a real disappointment, somewhat undermining the intended message. Movies with messages are always tricky.

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