Shot Caller is a great example of the kind of movie you shouldn’t ignore simply because it’s not getting a big, theatrical release. Usually I harp on this in terms of action films since freedom from Hollywood tropes and budgets allow for better, more grounded action cinema over lame CG super heroics. Shot Caller, despite what it may look like, isn’t an action film but instead offers a low-key gritty crime story, a goal it achieves thanks to assured direction by Ric Roman Waugh (Snitch, Felon, maybe you're sensing a theme here) and a subtle lead performance by Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau.
The film tells two stories, one in present tense, the other in flashback. The former focuses on a newly paroled Jacob “Money” Harlon, a high operative in a white supremacist prison gang who needs to ensure a big gun deal goes down on the outside. Mustached and covered in prison tattoos, Coster Waldau plays this version of the character as a steely leader, a man who speaks few words but makes sure his every utterance is clear and direct.
The more interesting flashback story tells us how Harlon got to this point. Once a clean-cut white collar worker with a loving wife and son, Harlon gets sent to prison after a drunk driving accident. Once in prison, he immediately sizes up his chances and goes on the offensive, winning him the attention of the yard’s white supremacist group. From there he ascends, becoming more ruthless and grizzled as he goes while also accruing more jail time for his violent actions and removing himself further and further from his wife and son. If you’ve seen the great A Prophet, some of this will be a bit familiar.
In a sense, Shot Caller is about how far a good man will go to survive, but its deeper themes focus on how the prison complex breeds and hardens monsters. It isn’t exactly subtle in its approach. Harlon does not enter prison with any indication that he’s capable of the violence he will later commit, which is interesting but also strains credibility. How does a soft money man suddenly have what it takes to hold his own amongst hardened felons on a prison yard? The film’s only answer is desperation and resolve, but until Coster Waldau physically transforms into a more recognizable prisoner-type, his success in prison is not very convincing.
Everything else is, though. One of the film’s strengths is its gritty, authentic feel. Its depiction of prison may be bullshit, but it certainly feels realistic and terrifying thanks to casting and some next level set design. It’s a movie you can smell.
Ric Roman Waugh is signed to direct Angel Has Fallen, and it’s hard not to watch the film without wondering how it bodes for the next chapter in the bloody saga of Mike Banning, especially since (unlike the good but not great Snitch), this is an all-out R-rated affair. While Shot Caller lacks any impressive action scenes - it’s really not that kind of movie - it is full of impressively gross stabbing violence, which happens to be a Banning specialty. Waugh does not shy away from making you feel these murders, and one stabbing death in particular had me squirming in my seat. Angel Has Fallen in probably in good hands.