Synopsis – A newly released prison gangster is forced by the leaders of his gang to orchestrate a major crime with a brutal rival gang on the streets of Southern California.
My Take – This happens every year! Between a mix of high profile films & CGI friendly entertainers, comes a relatively unknown film which blows your expectations exponentially. This Ric Roman Waugh (Snitch, Felon) directed film, with little to no marketing at all, started garnering attention on the social media once it released online along with a dozen of mediocre and plain-old awful VOD films. I get it, it’s hard to attract yourself to a film which is mostly based behind bars, but trust me, you will not see a film this year, so grim, unsettling & downright terrifying than this harrowing study of what can happen when a decent man slips down the rabbit hole of social injustice and lands in a place where the situation is simple – kill or get killed. This film is a great example of the kind of film you shouldn’t ignore simply because it’s not getting a big, theatrical release & despite what it may look like, this isn’t an action oriented film but instead offers a low-key gritty crime story, a goal it achieves thanks to its assured direction and subtle performances lead by Game of Thrones’ breakout star Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. The story follows Jacob “Money” Harlon (Nikolaj Coaster-Waldau), a high operative in a white supremacist prison gang. Released on parole, the mustached and tattooed, Jacob has been tasked by the gang leader, the Beast (Holt McCalllany), to ensure a big gun deal goes down smoothly on the outside. Years ago, Jacob was a clean-cut wealthy stockbroker who lead an inconceivably comfortable life with beautiful wife Kate (Lake Bell) and young son.
However, a night of drunk driving which lead to the death of his best friend (Max Greenfield), rips apart his life from its roots as he charged & sentenced for man slaughter. Once in prison, he immediately sizes up his chances and goes on the offensive, winning him the attention of the yard’s white supremacist group and aligns himself with fellow inmates Bottles (Jeffrey Donovan) and his right-hand Shotgun (Jon Bernthal). From there he ascends, becoming more ruthless and grizzled as he goes while also accruing more jail time for his violent actions and removing himself further and further from his wife and son. Unknown to him, Kutcher (Omari Hardwick), his parole officer has been building a case against him & the Beast with the help of Sheriff Sanchez (Benjamin Bratt) & officer Phil Cole (Matt Gerald). Director and former stuntman Ric Roman Waugh begins the film with Jacob’s release and moves back and forth between his life of happiness and leisure and his newfound criminal exploits in Southern California, working with some of his former jailhouse buddies and newcomers like Howie (Emory Cohen), who becomes something of a surrogate son to him. The deal places Jacob between two rival gangs, which forces him to call on his skills as a quick thinker and negotiator to keep from getting killed. Working as a companion to director Waugh’s previously acclaimed film Felon which starred Val Kilmer and Stephen Dorff, this film too is a dark character piece. The director’s goal here is to show what happens when the system fails, the theory of justice loses meaning, and a first-time offender can be turned into a vicious monster. After 10 years of being brutalized, a desensitized Jacob naively thinks he will finally be able to pick up his life interrupted with the wife and son he loves, but the most alarming lesson the film teaches is that the gang life a man adopts in prison to stay alive is a forced lifestyle from which there is never any escape. It’s hard to believe that hope is irreversibly crushed, and there are examples of former inmates who do successfully start over fresh after incarceration, but this the story about a man doomed by the system. It’s a chilling moment when one fellow prisoner in the lockup says to Jacob: “You think the fucking honor of being one of us ends at the gates? It ends when you’re six feet under.” In this context, you understand why he did what he did but the depth of his transformation is shocking yet intriguing. The ending of the film goes in an unexpected direction that is kind of take it or leave it but it’s about the journey and that’s the most important part of this film. An intricately tapestried character study of a way of life as well as an individual character study of Jacob/Money, director Waugh weaves the past and the present into a calculating and riveting thriller that not only keeps the characters on their toes, but the audience as well. As comes as no surprise, the authenticity and intricacy of maximum security prison life is flawless in its depiction thanks to Waugh’s attention to detail and meticulous research, so much so that he himself went undercover in a prison to gain a full understanding of that world. Director Waugh, to his eternal credit, stays safely away from the conventions of the standard message film and refrains from hammering the audience with platitudes about the evils of racism and mass incarceration.
Instead, it passively depicts the behavior and mindset of characters on both sides of the law in the prison system, not so much condemning prison gangs or their captors as it does chronicle their activities and interactions. This dispassionate approach provides the audience with enough detachment from the material to empathize, if not outright sympathize, with Josh “Money” Harlon, the seemingly perfect father who, if he wasn’t a hardened criminal before imprisonment, certainly was afterwards. There is plenty of brutal violence and thankfully, prison rape is kept to a minimum, although it is implied early on. Director Waugh keeps the threat and intensity grounded and real, which all the more adds more fascination towards Harlon as he weaves his way through prison and then out into the streets of Los Angeles. There are a few fights and bloody stabbings/shootings galore so you’ll never be bored; due to the constant tension, it moves the pace along so the 121-minute runtime never feels like a slog. One of the reasons the film’s release platform is so frustrating is that the film is a genuinely solid piece of storytelling. That said, the writing helps end things on a high. The twist at the end is a perfect example of good writing supplementing faultless execution albeit in true Hollywood fashion. I couldn’t swear to its box-office potential, but people would go see it simply to watch Coster-Waldau try on a different skin—two actually, since we see him play extremely different version of the same man, from what they see him do on Game of Thrones, and it might be his finest film work to date, on top of that. While prison films and films about criminals are hardly unique, the combination of the two in this way, showing the connection and how one never really leaves prison behind, in an interesting and surprisingly emotional journey for Jacob. If I have a criticism it’s the speed at which some of the events move and how the details which tightly bind the story together cohesively evaded me at times. I think this may have been as a result of the excessive cutting that was done to ensure the film adhered to the prescribed length, but that’s only a guess. I lost my way through sections of the plot at times and I found this a tad frustrating as it really impeded my enjoyment at times. Wish there was more to do for Lake Bell‘s character in the film (as well as more light shed on the gradual breakdown of their relationship). Truthfully it was nothing severe, but with a production like this when you are literally hanging on every word, missing pieces is an annoyance. One of the biggest reasons to enjoy this film is due to the awesome act put up by the cast. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau leads the charge with an excellent performance. Commanding attention without saying a word, he undergoes an amazing transformation both physically and emotionally as Jacob “becomes” Money. He is great on Game of Thrones unfortunately he hasn’t had the same kind of mainstream success outside of it, if word about this film spreads, he may end up being offered meatier roles. Easily one of the best acting jobs I’ve seen this year. Lake Bell as the supportive, and heart-broken, ex-wife is very likable. Jon Bernthal is a stand out as always, so are Emery Cohen & Evan Jones. Jeffrey Donovan is totally unrecognizable & excellent here. Even with a limited screen time, Holt McCallany makes a mark as the creepy & calculated crime lord. The cops played by Benjamin Bratt, Omari Hardwick and Matt Gerald are also good. On the whole, ‘Shot Caller’ is an excellent captivating thriller that tells an engaging story and offers compelling characters.
Directed – Ric Roman Waugh
Rated – R
Run Time – 121 minutes