Writer-director Ric Roman Waugh (‘Snitch’, ‘Felon’) researched his latest film, ‘Shot Caller’, while working undercover with California parole officers. Disguised as a rookie cop, he learned the ins and outs of prison culture and gang rules. The result is a film that never fails to involve the viewer in the choices a regular man makes in his acceptance of a fate beyond his control. As one of the characters says: “Once a dude gets institutionalised, anything is possible.”
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays Jacob Harlan, a father, husband and successful Pasadena stockbroker who is jailed after a drunk-driving accident that takes the life of a friend. His efforts to defend himself by putting up his home as collateral to hire a powerful lawyer backfire, leading to a stiff sentence and the loss of his home, job and family. When he is released ten years later, Jacob is a hardened criminal called Money, covered in tattoos, a white supremacist gang member trained to kill by the primal prison system, and trapped in a life of crime with a new set of moral values. Pursued by both cops and thugs, Money longs to return to the normal life he left behind, but finds himself fated to commit a serious crime to fulfil his obligations to the gang he joined behind bars in order to survive.
After meeting with his parole officer, Kutcher (Omari Hardwick, TV’s ‘Power’), he tracks down his ex-wife, Kate (Lake Bell, ‘In a World...’, ‘Man Up’, ‘The Secret Life Of Pets’), to help her financially and tell her that he doesn’t want to see his now-teenage son. He believes that the boy will have a better life if he forgets about his father and doesn’t repeat his mistakes. Despite being free, Money isn’t done with crime. In fact, his first task on the outside is to work with a thug nicknamed Shotgun (John Bernthal, ‘The Accountant’, TV’s ‘The Punisher’) on a weapons deal masterminded by the gang’s still-imprisoned head honcho, The Beast (a feral Holt McCallany, ‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back’, TV’s ‘Mindhunter’). But Money has his own agenda and we only begin to understand what it is when we see the flashbacks to the events that happened immediately before and after Money’s introduction to incarceration.
'SHOT CALLER' TRAILER
Due to his iconic role as Jaimie Lannister on the massively popular TV series ‘Game of Thrones’, and with his best film roles being in foreign language fare like ‘Nightwatch’, ‘Headhunters’, and ’A Thousand Times Good Night’, it is easy to forget the versatility of Danish actor Coster-Waldau. He is very good here in a role that sees him transforming his physique, mannerisms and body language. He receives strong support from a great cast, including Lake Bell, Jon Bernthal, Omari Hardwick and Benjamin Bratt, with stand-out performances from Holt McCallany, Emory Cohen ( ‘Brooklyn’), and Jeffrey Donovan (‘Sicario’).
‘Shot Caller’ is told from two timelines: the present, and the past which reveals how Money became the ruthless gangster that he is. It is the past timeline that is the most gripping, showing us a drastically different man who made a mistake that led to a devastating, downward spiral of his life. But years in prison have not fully transformed Money - carefully hidden deep within the monster, there is a bit of humanity left.
Money is driven not by greed, the desire for power, or any of the other things that typically motivate criminals in films like ‘Shot Caller’. Instead, his primary characteristic is love for his family. He puts them first in all cases and does whatever is necessary to ensure they are protected and cared for. If that includes removing himself from their lives, so be it. If that includes betraying associates and concocting a convoluted scheme that will ensure that he spends the rest of his life behind bars, that’s a price he’s willing to pay. Money’s motivations make the character sympathetic even when his actions are bloody and brutal. At the beginning, the only blood on his hands is the result of poor judgment and misfortune. The same cannot be said at the end.
Coster-Waldau transforms not only his physique and surface appearance, but also his mannerisms and body language.
Director Waugh is just as capable in the big action scenes as he is with character development and intimate dialogue. Grisly shankings (a “shank” is a homemade, knife-like weapon usually made in prison) aplenty occur – solo shankings, gang shankings, slow shankings, fast shankings, people prodded from all kinds of angles with a variety of sharpened spoons, toothbrushes and pointy objects. ‘Shot Caller’ finally culminates in the mother of all shankings, a Grand Guignol-esque theatre of blood. If you’re a shanking aficionado, my friend, you came to the right place! That said, although the climactic shank-fest is viscerally satisfying, it’s also disappointing because it finally raises the suspension of disbelief hurdle too high for the viewer to be able to clear without difficulty.
Ultimately, ‘Shot Caller’ never reaches the level of modern classic prison movies like ‘Un Prophete’, ‘Ghosts... of the Civil Dead’, or ‘Starred Up’. As a film about American white supremacist gangs, it’s no ‘American History X’, ‘The Believer’, or ‘Imperium’, either. However, it is still a tense, terrifying, stabby look at the U.S. prison system and a great showcase for Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s often underrated acting abilities.