Shot Caller, 2017.
Directed by Ric Roman Waugh.
Starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jon Bernthal, Lake Bell, Benjamin Bratt, Omari Hardwick, and Holt McCallany.
A newly released prisoner is forced to enter a gang war upon his return to the outside world in a bid to get his life back on track.
With HBO’s epic Game of Thrones reaching its much-anticipated climax in 2018, fans will be wondering what is going to become of the show’s stars once the battle for Westeros is finally finished. Many of the stars, Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke most notably, have attempted to make a step-up to the big-screen with mixed results but one star fans won’t have to worry about, judging by his performance in his latest film, Shot Caller, is Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.
Waldau, best known for his role as Jaime Lannister, is completely transformed here, playing Jacob, the grizzled, Hulk Hogan mustachioed leader of a gang of neo-nazi skin-heads who has just been released from prison. That’s where we meet him at the start of the film, anyway, but as we soon discover through a series of flashbacks, Jacob has not always been this way – in fact, before he went inside, he was just an everyday wheeler-dealer whose life was flipped upside down by one bad decision.
Throughout the film, via a series of flashbacks, we see Jacob get swallowed up by the American penal system. While he enters with the intention of keeping his head down, he is soon drawn into the complex and incredibly violent workings of the prison he finds himself in. To survive, Jacob finds himself running errands for a group of neo-nazis, and before he knows it, he is rising through the ranks of the group, adding time on to his initial sentence and growing increasingly distant from the man he once was. The film’s other focus is on Jacob’s continued involvement with crime on the outside, where he is drawn into a gang-war forcing him to deal with his decisions if he to ever redeem himself of his past sins.
Shot Caller may sound a little cliche heavy, but thanks to an astonishing central performance, and a solid script, it manages to elevate itself well above the usual genre tropes. Jacob’s journey is sort of like Walter White meets American History X and director Ric Roman Waugh explores the psychological effects of the prison system expertly.
The star of the show here, though, is Waldau. Through his performance, Waldau paints a harrowing portrait of a man who will be forever changed by his life on the inside. What could have been a rather contrived transformation is handled expertly here and Waldau is wonderfully intense throughout. It’s a compelling examination of the effects of the so-called ‘justice’ system in America right now, one that hammers home its point several times throughout the movie. Jon Bernthal, Hollywood’s go-to hard-man at the moment, is also great in a supporting role here too.
Waugh is carving himself a nice little niche exploring the grimy underbelly of society as well, with this being his third feature film, following Snitch and Felon, in the crime genre. He is clearly becoming quite accustomed to it, too, with Shot Caller easily being his most accomplished movie to date. His depiction of life on the inside is very well observed and he is clearly a stickler for the rituals that take places on the inside. The film is also not one to shy away from the violent tendencies of the genre either. In the opening few shots alone, we see our central character’s tattooed back, with the words ‘White Pride’ written across the top, and a rather graphic image of an inmate hanged from a cell door, and things only get more harrowing from then on in. One scene, featuring a balloon delivered via some rations, is rather horrible to sit through and a prison fight sequence is very well-directed later in the film as well.
The film juggles both sides of Jacob’s story, both his life on the inside and the changes that forces him to go through, and his continued involvement with crime on the outside and that is perhaps one of my only criticisms here. The character study side of the movie, and life on the inside is excellent to watch, but the stuff on the outside does, at times, feel a little bit like an afterthought, lacking in the same edge that makes the prison stuff so compelling. Waldau holds it together nicely though, even if things do begin to feel a little rushed towards the end of the movie.
On the whole, though, Shot Caller is a gritty, violent examination of institutionalisation in America, one that manages to overcome the trappings of its genre in style. Challenging, complex and incredibly visceral, this, alongside the recent Brawl in Cell Block 99 shows that this genre hasn’t quite served its time just yet.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★/ Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Liam Hoofe is a writer and a teacher currently living in Madrid. You can follow him on Twitter, here- @liamhoofe