Now Streaming: Shot Caller (2017) - Reviewed

There are dozens of prison epics that explore a variety of topics, the bulk of which focus on the ineffectual justice system, recidivism, and racial discord.  Ric Roman Waugh's Shot Caller takes a unique approach to the genre through the exploration of personal choice, familial commitments, and the endless cycle of violence that is intrinsic to organized crime, be it behind bars or on the mean streets.  Featuring a masterfully restrained lead performance, uncharacteristic authenticity, and sequences of uncompromising violence, Shot Caller is an admirable, if predictable entry into genre. 

“Money”, a former white-collar businessman, becomes a high-ranking member of a white supremacist gang after being sent to prison for a fatal drunk driving accident.  Forced to commit various atrocities in exchange for protection, Money slowly begins to realize that the cost of his actions has endangered the family he left behind.  Game of Thrones star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau gives the performance of his career as Money.  One of his best qualities as an actor is his portrayal of vulnerability underneath a cunning facade.  His Money is an intelligent, civilized man who made a terrible mistake and as a result, is thrust into a place where his money, his background, and most importantly, his privilege does not matter.  However, Coster-Waldau embraces the situation, hardening when required, but also summoning pathos during the moments in between the bloodshed.   

The reason Coster-Waldau's performance is both memorable and unexpectedly reserved is due Waugh's subtle approach.  Everything is presented as is.  The morality at play exists within the organization, a complex chain of soldiers and lieutenants who are mortally entwined.  The inner workings of the gang are shown as ecological features of prison life, more than something to be disdained or glamourized, and this is the power of Shot Caller.  The same series of ill-advised decisions could lead another person down a similar path in a different environment.  Normal, everyday life features instances of duplicity and comeuppance and Waugh's unobtrusive style works tremendously at exploring this concept through the lens of a dog eat dog asylum for the worst humanity has to offer.
The supporting cast is filled with unusually strong character actors.  Jeffrey Donovan, Evan Jones, Lake Bell, Jon Bernthal, Benjamin Bratt, Omari Hardwick and Holt McCallany portray a variety of personas, from law enforcement officers to unsavory denizens of the penal world.  Jeffrey Donovan does an amazing job with the small amount of time he has while Omari Hardwick does an excellent job at depicting the duality of the law and those that uphold it.  Holt McCallany delivers a vicious turn as the mastermind of the white supremacists, and his scenes with Coster-Waldau brim with primal intensity. 

Waugh's longtime collaborator Dana Gonzales' cinematography melds with the "as-is" theme.  The prison environs are shot with crisp whites and bisecting lines, capturing the institutional underpinnings in an academic fashion.  The dichotomy between inside and out reinforces the inevitable tragedy of the story.  From the introductory scenes to the cyclical conclusion, the world inside the prison is devoid of color.  It is a place where the canvas is the flesh and the art is profane symbols of allegiance and proclamations of murder.  On the outside, colors flood the optics, yet, there is a sharpness underneath the pleasantries, an uncomfortable reminder of Shot Caller's unrepentant truth. 

It would be easy to call this film mean spirited.  It eschews any sense of hope or redemption, in favor of presenting Money’s sojourn as a natural set of calculated decisions and devastating consequences.  There are flaws throughout.  Much of the dialogue from various supporting characters feels forced and the storyline is extremely predictable.  However, Coster-Waldau's dedication and the murderous ambiance keep things mostly on track.  Ultimately, the viewer's pleasure is going to be measured by how much they enjoy a feel-bad experience.  Shot Caller does not hold hands and it most certainly does not approach its premise with caution.   While the understated presentation may be off putting to those looking for an over the top actioner, this is a remarkable foray into the depths of the prison system.

Shot Caller is now streaming on Amazon Prime. 

-- Kyle Jonathan