Shot Caller

SHOT CALLER,  US, 2017.  Starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jon Bernthal, Omari Hardwick, Lake Bell, Holt McCallany, Benjamin Bratt, Jeffrey Donovan, Evan Jones, Max Greenfield, Emory Cohen. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh.  1121 minutes. Rated MA (Strong violence and coarse language).

This is a little heard of film, which is a pity. It is not a film that everyone would enjoy but for those who like serious and strong dramas with moral issues and emotional issues, this can be recommended.

The film has been written and directed by Ric Roman Waugh, better known for his work in stunts since the 1980s.

The film opens and closes with letters, the opening with a letter from a criminal in jail to his son, the ending with a letter from the son to his father, in jail.

The structure of the film is such that it seems to start, in terms of the narrative, at point B. A man who has been behind bars for ten years is released just as there is a hanging in the corridor. He looks tough, especially with a handlebar moustache, lines in his face. He is picked up by other criminals, taken to accommodation, goes to a club where there is a drive-by shooting and he makes contact with a rather baby-faced veteran from Afghanistan with discussion about stolen arms.

When the screenplay unexpectedly takes us back to point A, it is quite a surprise. How could the man that we have just seen leaving prison be the rather dapper stockbroker, with wife and young son, dining at a fashionable restaurant and discussing business, be the same man who leaves jail ten years later?

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is most persuasive in the central role, shading the character of the stockbroker in his good days and as a prisoner in his bad days.

The continued flashbacks from the continuing point B, take quite a while to show the details of what happened in point A, car accident, court case, imprisonment.

Where the film is very interesting, psychologically speaking, is in the experience of the man in jail – real name Jacob, nickname “Money” because of his being a stockbroker. The screenplay raises the questions about how one survives in jail, the pressures of gangs, racial segregation, emotional blackmail. And the question whether a prisoner under such pressures has the exercise of free will or not. To that extent, the film shows the steps in the gradual downfall of Jacob leading to fights in the courtyard, murders, connections with arms dealing outside the prison, corrupt guards.

There is some emotion during the sequences with the visit of Jacob’s wife (Lake Bell), her sadness, her being mystified by the changes in her husband, and her surname growing up during his teen years.

All this is leading to point C, what will happen to Jacob as he leaves prison, the talk of an arms deal and his taking control. His liaison is Shotgun (Jon Bernthal) whom he had known in prison but is now making the connections for handing over of the weapons to a Mexican cartel.

In the meantime, we have been introduced to some of the police in Los Angeles, especially Omari Hardwick seen in a raid and wounded immediately in action when confronting a suburban paedophile. He is also Jacob’s supervisor during his probation. It emerges that the police have a leak within the rogue group and we wonder how Jacob is going to handle the situation. At times, this is not a pretty picture. The scenes of the sale and the raid are well executed and we are still puzzling over Jacob’s motivation and his subsequent behaviour.

There are explanations, some coming right at the end, which means that the audience is involved throughout the film with Jacob and his character, the changes, the motivations, some dismay at his behaviour, some hopes for change in behaviour, but the audience puzzling and reflecting right up to the end of the film.

Icon                                     Released  30th November

Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

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