Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) goes into prison – a successful family man convicted for a DUI killing, terrified of what life behind bars might hold. A decade later, “Money” is paroled – a cold-eyed, tattooed, prison-hard, high-ranking member of white supremacist prison gang, PEN-1. They’re the same guy. How did we get here from there? And is there anything of Jacob left inside Money?
For his fourth fiction feature (he also directed That Which I Love Destroys Me, a documentary on PTSD in returned service personnel) as director, Ric Roman Waugh returns to the territory he previously visited in Felon and Snitch: American prison culture. Approaching his material with an eye for authentic detail, ushering us into a tribal world segregated along racial lines and forcing us to measure our own principles against the awful, pragmatic realities of the yard, where skin tone dictates allegiance. Would you rather die than get an SS flash tattoo? Would you rather be raped? These are incredibly uncomfortable questions.
Early on in the piece we are shown which way Jacob flips, of course, but it’s a fascinating journey as we watch him gradually carve out a place for himself in the PEN-1 hierarchy, under the tutelage of gang boss – or “shot caller” Bottles (Jeffrey Donovan) and hard case Shotgun (the increasingly ubiquitous Jon Bernthal, who can do this kind of role in his sleep these days). The film is sympathetic to Jacob/Money – he’s our POV character, after all – but unsentimental. Still, while his skin gradually fills up with racist slogans, we never see him really engage with the inherent bigotry of his prison allegiance, which is either a character note – he’s just paying lip service to survive or a failure to fully commit to the premise on the film’s part, depending on which you want to look at it. Perhaps its for the best – even an actor of Coster-Waldau’s charisma might struggle to make a virulently racist protagonist compelling (although, let’s face it, Russell Crowe launched a career off his ability to do so).
Coster-Waldau is clearly relishing his chance to show some range here, and his transformation from Jacob to Money is never less than completely convincing; this is, at base, a smart man who can see the options available to him and take the path that seems most correct to him, no matter how distasteful or violent. What really impresses, both in terms of his performance and Waugh’s script, is how the character’s core motivations remain intact; he has a wife (Lake Bell) and a son, and protecting them from both the pain of his incarceration and the fallout from his gang affiliation is paramount.
It’s this that drives the post-prison half of the narrative, which sees Money still deeply embedded in the gang. Membership is for life, a rather terrifying senior figure known as The Beast (veteran character actor Holt McCallany, recently seen in Mindhunters), informs Money, and any attempt not to live up to the debt he owes his “brothers” will see dire consequences visited upon his blood family. Inevitably there’s a hard choice to be made, with bloody consequences no matter which way our man jumps. OF course, we’ve already seen that he’s good in a corner, and can do the most horrifying things when boxed in…
“Solid” is the word that comes most readily to mind when contemplating Shot Caller. This is a small scale, self-contained and rigorous drama, and its sudden, almost unheralded appearance on the theatrical release calendar serves to remind us how rare such films have become on the big screen. This is not a film that’s going to re-wire anybody’s worldview or dazzle us with its visual pyrotechnics, but it’s by any measure a respectable workhorse, committed to its ethos, ruggedly constructed, and well acted. It shouldn’t be special – we should get a dozen of these a year. I really wish we did.