VOD film review: Shot Caller
Matthew Turner | On 18, Dec 2017
Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Omari Hardwick, Lake Bell, Jon Bernthal, Emory Cohen, Holt McCallany
Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is in serious danger of typecasting, as he’s played ex-cons in each of his last three films (Shot Caller, 3 Things and Small Crimes). Happily, it’s a niche that really works for him, as this intense, slow-burning prison drama demonstrates.
Written and directed by Ric Roman Waugh (whose previous movies, Felon and Snitch, both ploughed a similar field), Shot Caller begins with convicted criminal Jacob (Coster-Waldau) writing a heartfelt letter to his teenaged son from prison. Thereafter, two separate timelines emerge: the first details Jacob’s conviction for vehicular manslaughter and his subsequent rise through the ranks of the prison hierarchy, while the second follows Jacob (now going by “Money”) on his release from jail over a decade later, as he rejoins members of his former prison gang and helps set up a gun-running deal.
The script’s disjointed structure is extremely effective, especially in the way it delays its first flashback to Jacob’s previous life as a stockbroker and family man until quite a while after we’ve seen the man he has become in prison. The effect is two-fold – there’s a jarring shock value and you immediately want to know more about what happened to Jacob that changed him so dramatically.
Coster-Waldau is superb as Jacob / “Money”, delivering an intense, complex and softly-spoken performance that keeps you guessing as to exactly how much sympathy you’re supposed to have for him. To that end, there are distinct shades of Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet, with the film serving as a sharp indictment of a correctional facility system that’s rife with corruption.
The dual structure also allows Roman Waugh to balance some genuinely shocking sequences – the violence, when it comes, is visceral and brutal – with moments of surprising emotion. Similarly, the slow-burn direction is consistently impressive, ensuring that the story remains unpredictable right up to the end.
Roman Waugh has assembled a top-notch cast of supporting players that includes Brooklyn’s Emory Cohen (as a fresh-faced would-be gang member and former soldier who facilitates the arms deal), Mindhunter’s Holt McCallany (terrifying as ferocious prison kingpin “The Beast”), The Punisher’s Jon Bernthal (as the inmate who recruits Jacob in prison), Lake Bell as Jacob’s wife and Omari Hardwick as Jacob’s suspicious parole officer.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a couple of problems. For example, the idea that Jacob’s crime would land him a stretch in a maximum-security prison alongside hardened criminals is a little far-fetched, explained away in the script with a single, unconvincing line of dialogue. On top of that, with a running time of two hours (and a slight drag in the middle section), it’s perhaps a shade too long, but the pay-off is definitely worth the wait.