Film Review: Shot Caller

This tough and gritty story of a convict’s regrets and redemption also offers a surprising amount of emotion from Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s eye-opening performance.
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Television shows like HBO’s “Oz” and “Sons of Anarchy” have done a great job showing what the prison system can do to a man, and it’s something indie filmmakers have been exploring more frequently.

In this case, Shot Caller tells the story of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Jacob Harlon, who we see being released from jail, as someone who clearly has a lot of power among the gangs after his actions inside. There’s more to this ex-con than someone trying to stay on the straight-and-narrow, as he’s also working on a gun-smuggling deal set up with a young soldier (Emory Cohen).

As this unfolds, we get a flashback to ten years earlier, when Jake was a Pasadena stockbroker sentenced to seven years in jail for a DUI that killed his best friend and business partner, Tom (Max Greenfield). Being in prison changes Jake, as he gets involved with the white-supremacist gangs who give him the nickname “Money” and he moves up the ranks even as his actions in jail get his sentence extended.

At the same time, we follow Jake’s parole officer, Kutcher (Omari Hardwick), a policeman who has been scarred by a previous case, who suspects Jake of being involved in something bigger. Normally, this sort of two- or three-pronged nonlinear storytelling can get confusing, but it’s always very clear where we are in the timelines that bounce between present and past.

In 2008, stuntman-turned-filmmaker Ric Roman Waugh made a crime drama called Felon, starring Val Kilmer and Stephen Dorff, which had similar thematic elements as Shot Caller in exploring what prison does to a man. Waugh seems to have been quite thorough with his research, knowing enough about both sides of the law to bring a level of authenticity to the storytelling we don’t often see in modern prison films.

Anyone who only knows Coster-Waldau from his role as Jaime Lannister on “Game of Thrones” will be shocked and amazed by what is clearly one of the Danish actor’s finest performances. It’s a transformative role not just due to the handlebar mustache he sports or how muscular he looks—he’s almost unrecognizable between when Jake goes into jail and after his release. If you remember how impressive Tom Hardy was in the film Bronson, it gives you some idea of the degree to which Coster-Waldau takes this character.

The fact you’re able to stay invested in Jake’s journey as he becomes more involved with simply deplorable people adds to the beauty of his performance, especially once we discover Jake has larger plans that only come to fruition in the film’s jaw-dropping last act.

Much of the movie is deliberately cold and tough, but it does get emotional as we watch Jake engage with his estranged wife (Lake Bell) and son, who he removes from his life to avoid them getting dragged into his criminal lifestyle. “Some things just don’t go back together again,” he tells his son, not wanting to hurt them any further.

Jon Bernthal’s Frank, aka “Shotgun,” is another key component to the story, someone Jake meets in prison whose path becomes entwined with his following his release. Other memorable performances come from Jeffrey Donovan and Holt McCallany as two of Jake’s tougher prison bosses.

The edgy combo of Antonio Pinto’s music and the way it blends into the sound design keeps you constantly on edge, as it pulls you deeper and deeper into Jake’s world, but also adds to the emotions Waugh is trying to evoke.

Shot Caller is a brilliantly made film, unlike anything else out there, and it teaches a valuable lesson about what the penal system’s cycle of violence can do to an honest man.

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