Shot Caller Review: a gripping prison drama

Shot Caller (2017) Movie Review
Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Cast:  Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jon Bernthal, Lake Bell, Emory Cohen

There’s a point about 10 minutes into Shot Caller where it feels like I’ve been dropped into the middle of the movie. I jokingly thought in the next few moments there would be a flash back to many years ago to explain everything and as if on cue “10 years earlier” came up on the screen. This narrative device is a good hook for Shot Caller. The flashback begins by showing the main character in a very different light and I was intrigued by what could have happened to radically transform him over the last ten years.

Game of Throne’s Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays Jacob “Money” Harlon, a recently paroled gangster. A bad decision landed Money in prison. But Money cannot accurately be described as a victim because he’s in prison for a crime he actually committed. The prison system itself manufactures criminals. As hardened as Money becomes he’s not a complete monster either because he’s capable of making moral, self-less decisions. At times that very quality leads him further down the spiral of criminality.

Shot Caller is a prison drama / crime thriller about the price Money is willing to pay to keep his wife and young son safe. Money learns that even when out of prison he’s never going to be free from gang obligations. The family-centric scenes are unoriginal dramatic fare as are the prison flashbacks which are interspersed with the present day events. Think of all the events you’d typically see in a prison drama and Shot Caller checks them all off. However, these events (Money’s breaking bad moments) effectively show how the hostile prison environment transforms Money into a violent gang member.

What works the best is the main character driving the story. Money is smart and dangerous. Or put it this way, intelligence and cunning can make for a dangerous man. But the primal instinctual behavior in a man who’ll sacrifice just about anything to protect his family is an absolutely terrifying force of nature. Take away the business suits and fancy cars, Shot Caller suggests that the modern man is not that far removed from our animal instincts and heritage.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau puts in a solid performance and is believable as Money. His American accent isn’t too shabby either. It seems like Jon Bernthal is in just about everything lately, here he plays the criminal nicknamed “Shotgun”. Even though both of these actors are respectively well known as Jamie Lannister and The Walking Dead’s Shane/Netflix’s The Punisher, they both add subtlety and distinctions to their Shot Caller characters which show off another dimension to their acting range. Less memorable is Lake Bell as Money’s wife, who’s acting is sufficient but generic, and Emory Cohen is bland as the newbie gang recruit Howie.

Shot Caller is a mix of things we’ve seen before many times over. Don’t expect any artsy cinematography or directorial indulgences. It’s a conventional prison drama meets crime conspiracy with a fair amount of bloody violence. The story isn’t bad, neither is it a powerful, emotional tour de force. The selling point is that the main character is compelling as he transforms over time and deftly maneuvers in and out of dangerous situations. The ending is quite satisfying and suits the film’s weighty tone. Shot Caller is well worth .. . ahem giving a shot.

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