LA Film Festival Review: ‘Shot Caller’ Survives on Instinct in Prison Thriller

'Shot Caller' (2017) - Movie Review

‘Snitch’ Director Revisits Criminal Conflict in ‘Shot Caller’

Writer-director Ric Roman Waugh is certainly no stranger to depicting the seedy criminal life on the big screen. Previous releases such as Felon and Snitch tackle the thematic dynamic with a family man who reluctantly finds himself intertwined in the criminal underbelly. His latest entry, Shot Caller, follows through with the director’s fascination on the subject in perhaps the most confident manner.

When we first meet Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s (Game of Thrones), Jacob “Money” Harlon, he’s certainly not your incestuous pretty boy we’ve come to know on the hit HBO series. Hardened by years in prison, Harlon sports a handlebar mustache and is covered in white supremacist propaganda. The words “White Pride” are tattooed on his back, while his son and wife’s names grace his upper chest. He’s at a point in his life where he’s come to terms with his situation. Additionally, he decides to write a letter to his son, asking that he move on a forget him. While he is getting out, he feels this is the best approach.

Within the first moments of Shot Caller, the audience is left pondering how did Jacob land himself in prison in the first place. Bouncing back between past and present, writer-director Waugh begins to peel back the narrative, putting the series of tragic events in motion. We go back about a decade where Jacob is the respectable business type. His only fault is his tainted driving record. Matters get worse one night when he runs a red light in a fatal head-on collision. That’s what brings us back to his current circumstances in prison. As the film progresses, Shot Caller continues to pinball back and forth from past to present in a coherent fashion.

SEE ALSO: LA Film Festival 2017 Review: And Then I Go

It’s through Coster-Waldau’s instinctive performance that we begin to comprehend what it exactly means to survive in prison. On his first day, he gets entangled with another inmate, before allying himself with gang members. Daredevil’s Jon Bernthal fits right in at home as a member of his gang brethren. He along with the other members of the gang task Jacob with not the best errands in prison. Overall, the primary goal is to protect his family no matter the cost. That’s a recurring theme in Waugh’s previous films. While it never set outs to break new ground, Waugh still offers up an engaging narrative.

Throughout Shot Caller, Coster-Waldau greatly immerses himself in the duality of family man and criminal. His few scenes with wife, Lake Bell, are serviceable, but are left in the backdrop. Rather in the forefront is Jacob’s riveting journey of survival. Upon his arrival in prison, he’s informed that everyone is thrown in the confines together. From simple felons to the worst of the worst, there’s no difference in the penitentiary. In fact, some are treated in an animalistic manner, locked in one of several cages outside. The situation’s hammered home even greater when Jacob reads a book about animals in his cell.

It’s pleasing to see Waugh return to his indie roots. While his last film, Snitch, starring Dwayne Johnson, felt a bit too mainstream, Shot Caller plays to more of a striking visceral beat. And we have even have some of the same cast crossing over including Bernthal and Benjamin Bratt populating this film’s antagonists. While the ball moves a bit slower than aforementioned film, it’s more focused in its delivery. Despite the main character’s poor life choices, we’re still invested in how he survives this series of events.

Shot Caller doesn’t spell out the difficulties of prison life and its consequences hereafter in a cut-and-dry manner. Jacob faces a gripping two hours of endurance that damages him both physically and mentally. As a result, Coster-Waldau shines in his best theatrical role of his career.

Written by
Matt Marshall has been reviewing films since 2003, starting with "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." He specializes in home media, including 4K UHD, Blu-ray as well as box office analysis. He has a B.A. in Communications/Journalism from St. John Fisher College and resides in Rochester, NY.

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