The Austin Chronicle

Shot Caller

Rated R, 121 min. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh. Starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lake Bell, Jon Bernthal, Omari Hardwick, Jeffrey Donovan, Holt McCallany, Benjamin Bratt, Jessy Schram, Evan Jones, Emory Cohen, Michael Landes.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 18, 2017

Intense is a word that, like awesome, has become borderline meaningless over the past three or so decades, but “visceral,” now that still packs a wallop. Shot Caller, the new real life-meets-prison, life drama-cum-actioner from director Waugh (Snitch) fits the latter adjective to a bloody, razor-wielding tee. It’s a tragedy that, while not quite Shakespearean in its brutal twists of fate, is nonetheless a highly watchable study of an ordinary man thrust into the modern Californian penal system and what that does to his core identity, as well as that of his family. It’s less Riot in Cell Block 11 than it is incarceration devastation. And the whole film rests on the increasingly prison-ink tatted shoulders of Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister, who brings his A – as in ass-kicking – game to Waugh’s film.

First viewed as the Aryan Brotherhood-tatted felon dubbed “Money” sporting longish, greasy hair and a biker ’stache, Shot Caller (well scripted by Waugh) flashes back and forth between this killer’s current situation – he’s just been released from the big house and is covertly helping to set up an arms deal with some other ex-cons – to that of his past, where not so long ago he was Jacob, a high-living Cali financier with a loving wife, Kate (Bell, not given a whole lot to do here), and their son. During a night out on the town with his wife and best friend, the sozzled Jacob blows through a red light, which results in the death of his buddy and some serious DUI charges that land him in the pen. Once inside, he’s challenged by a black inmate immediately, fights back, and is slowly but surely groomed by resident overlord The Beast (McCallany, of Fight Club) to become a key player in the Aryan Nation. From thereon in, the action trips backwards and forwards in time, giving the audience a severely gritty and occasionally gory perspective on Jacob/Money’s descent from average American guy to hardened criminal. If there’s a message here, it’s one we already know: Hard time makes mortal men into monsters, no matter what our current A.G. might have to say about that.

Coster-Waldau does a top-notch job portraying his character’s doomy career arc, as he slowly comes to accept that his former life as Joe Average is devolved by his current reality and the desire to survive within the cage. Also on board is The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal as one of The Beast’s white power henchmen, and Power’s Hardwick as Money’s suspicious parole officer. Capped off with a paranoiac little masterpiece of a score, courtesy of Antonio Pinto, and Shot Caller is a curdled and rancid look at the American dream gone haywire.

See Richard Whittaker’s interview with Austin-based director Ric Roman Waugh.

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