Prison drama succeeds in making life behind bars look bad—which isn’t much of a challenge, really
Shot Caller (2017)
Directed by Ric Roman Waugh
Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lake Bell, Jon Bernthal, Omari Hardwick
In the wake of previous features Felon and Snitch, stuntman-
To either his credit or clout, Waugh drafts some solid B-list performers, starting with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (the Kingslayer himself from “Game of Thrones”). Here, Coster-Waldau plays Jacob, a happily married, suit-wearing Wall Street stockbroker who—in a series of flashbacks—
As the film begins, our boy Jacob (known by his gang name “Money”) is about to be released from prison after a decade behind bars. (He would have gotten out earlier, but he kept doing bad stuff like, you know, stabbing fellow inmates.) Secretly, Jacob/Money entertains thoughts of going straight and spends a lot of time mooning over pictures of his ex-wife (an underused Lake Bell) and now teenaged son. But poor Money is beholden to the network of racist criminals he’s spent the last 10 years smuggling drugs, shanking snitches and setting up big-money gunrunning operations for. Seems that—despite hints that he doesn’t really hate black people and Mexicans—Money is inordinately skilled at being a murderous criminal kingpin.
Freed from prison Money returns to his old Los Angeles-area haunts. But he’s now stuck hanging around a bunch of meth-loving white supremacists. In particular, he’s finding his every move shadowed by former prison pal “Shotgun” (Jon Bernthal from “The Walking Dead” and “Daredevil”). Shotgun, it seems has been ordered by the skinhead brass to keep an eye on Money. But as it turns out, he’s also working as a mole for the FBI. This puts Money in the crosshairs of both monstrous super Nazi “The Beast” (Holt McCallany) and shellshocked parole officer Kutcher (Omari Hardwick). What’s a semi-sympathetic, semi-racist to do?
Lensed by cinematographer Dana Gonzales (“Legion,” the “Fargo” TV series) and staged largely inside the long-abandoned New Mexico State Penitentiary, Shot Caller looks appropriately, fatalistically grim. The score by Antonio Pinto (Central Station, City of God, Love in the Time of Cholera) only reinforces the mood, bass chords vibrating like taxiing cargo planes the entire film. No happiness here, people. It ain’t in the cards.
Waugh has obviously spent a lot of time reading books about criminal behavior and life in prison. Or at least watching binge-watching “Oz.” The details here all feel more or less authentic—but that doesn’t mean they add up to a particularly original or compelling story. An “innocent” ex-con wants to go straight, maybe tries to pull off “one last job,” but “the life” just keeps pulling him back in. At just over two hours, the film drags viewers along on glum atmosphere and ponderous, momentum-killing flashbacks.
Coster-Waldau gives it the old college try, and he mostly succeeds at projecting the simmering, feral menace of his inked-up, horseshoe mustache-sporting character. But then everyone else in the cast is busy trying to out-glower one another. Every line of dialogue, it seems, is delivered in a whisper through gritted teeth. Silliest of all these tough dudes is Jeffrey Donovan (from “Burn Notice”) as a shades-wearing prison yard gangster whose idea of menacing looks an awful lot like somnambulant. Given that this entire movie involves drive-by shootings, prison riots and evil Nazis stabbing one another, it’s surprising how clunky and slowly paced it all feels. American History X and Romper Stomper this ain’t. For all his gritty bluster, Waugh soft-pedals far too many things. Worried, perhaps, that his skinheads might come off sounding kinda, you know, racist, they refrain from using racial epithets, rarely voice criticism of minorities and never mention that Hitler guy. C’mon.
The message of Shot Caller—writ frequently and large—is obvious: Prison sucks. It doesn’t rehabilitate anyone. It turns innocent people like Jacob here into hardened, irredeemable savages. And to a certain extent that’s true. But it’s not exactly a news flash. And it’s a philosophy that gives Shot Caller a sense of inevitability and predictability that all the confusing ricocheting back and forth in time can’t alleviate.
Sure, there’s something blunt, brutal and uncompromising here—at least in the film writer-director Waugh was picturing in his mind. And there’s plenty of skill scattered around the end result—from some committed acting to some gloomy cinematography. But Shot Caller is far too melodramatic and drags its twisty story out far too long to have the solid, gut-punch impact it so desperately wants.