Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Lake Bell, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Donovan, Omari Hardwick, Holt McCallany, Jessy Schram, Benjamin Bratt, Michael Landes, Emory Cohen, Evan Jones, Juan Pablo Raba, Chris Browning
MPAA Rating: (for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some drug use and brief nudity)
Running Time: 2:01
Release Date: 8/18/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 17, 2017
The story of Shot Caller is a tragedy. It's clear that writer/director Ric Roman Waugh understands and intended this. The story begins with our protagonist as a hardened criminal, locked away in a cell in a maximum security prison—his body covered in tattoos that promote an ideology of white supremacism. When we see him years earlier for the first time, he's a clean-cut family man, a successful member of the Wall Street elite, a good friend, and someone who seems to have everything about his life together in a comfortable, enviable fashion. The question is how and why this man became the guy we first see.
That story is the tragic one. At a certain point in Waugh's screenplay, it ends. Once we see the how and why, there is little else to say. The central plot of the movie, though, is set after the protagonist's transformation. He is on parole for his multiple crimes, and it becomes clear that this part of the story is not a furtherance of the tragedy of the man's back story. It's not about him trying to readjust to life outside of prison, to reconcile with a family that he hasn't seen in years, or to become part of society again.
When we first meet Jacob (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who has adopted his prison moniker "Money," he has long since abandoned the idea of the man he was. There is something else on his mind, and the mystery of whatever plan he has concocted is of central focus to Waugh's screenplay.
It's a different story, in a way, because it's essentially about a different character. We know that Jacob, the decent man, and Money, the murderous criminal, are one and the same, but we also know that whatever decency Jacob possessed has been systematically destroyed by life in prison.
Money is almost directly a product of that system, which packs criminals together in intentionally difficult circumstances and expects that they'll somehow get along. The movie's depiction of the penal institution is one that has abandoned any idea of reforming criminals. It's a system that now exists exclusively as form of punishment, and if the prisoners punish each other, that is simply a fewer number of prisoners with which the guards have to deal.
We can guess how Jacob became Money, but it is still a more involving story than the one that is intentionally shrouded in mystery. In it, Jacob is a financial something-or-other, who is married to Kate (Lake Bell) and has a young son. A distracted and intoxicated Jacob runs a red light, and an approaching car hits his, instantly killing one of his passengers.
Jacob's attorney manages a plea deal, but after a new inmate is brutally assaulted on Jacob's first night in prison, it becomes clear that any amount of time in prison is too much. For protection, he latches on to a white supremacist gang in the yard. The gang's leader, called "the Beast" (Holt McCallany), and his various lieutenants, including "Shotgun" (Jon Bernthal) and "Bottles" (Jeffrey Donovan), expect Jacob to do their bidding—from taking part in gang brawls to outright murder.
This is the secondary story. The primary one follows Jacob, who's now officially Money, as he runs a gun deal on the Beast's orders. His parole officer Kutcher (Omari Hardwick) is suspicious of his new charge, so Money has to navigate the deal, a betrayer in the gang, and the law in order to pull off the deal—or whatever else he has planned instead.
The prison scenes, spread out as flashbacks during the main plot, are both an indictment and instructive of the ways in which this system can turn even the most otherwise-upstanding person into someone who will do anything to survive within the institution's walls. There's a brutal hopelessness to Jacob's situation, with every action lessening himself as a person, driving him away from his family out of shame, and potentially adding more time to his prison sentence—essentially creating an unending cycle. To stay alive in prison, he must act in a way that will keep him there.
Coster-Waldau's performance in these scenes is quite good in the way he communicates how each step in his transformation nearly, but doesn't quite, break him. That performance—and the entire tone, really—changes whenever the story shifts to the present day of Money in his post-incarceration period. Whatever he's doing—and why he's doing it—is kept a secret until the climax, meaning that there's little reason to be invested in the character. Waugh keeps Money's motive from us, and when it is finally revealed, it changes the entire dynamic of the character's story in a way that is both far too conventional and somewhat antithetical to the point of the prison scenes.
There's a tough, unapologetic movie about the inherent corruption of the prison system in Shot Caller, but Waugh has diluted it with elements of an unnecessary mystery and a routine thriller. We're not supposed to feel good about the man Jacob has become, but there's a sense we're supposed to believe that, in an indirect way, something good has come of it. That defeats the purpose.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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