SHOT CALLER. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Omari Hardwick, Lake Bell, Jon Bernthal, Emory Cohen, Jeffrey Donovan, Evan Jones, Benjamin Bratt, Holt McCallany. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh. 120 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong violence and coarse language).
‘Shot Caller’ chronicles the rise and fall (or should that be fall and rise?) of Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a white-collar stock broker sent to prison after a drink-driving incident. Earning the nickname ‘Money’ in reference to his previous profession, Harlon rises through the ranks of a white supremacist prison gang before joining the group’s operations outside the prison after his release. It benefits from a strong lead turn by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best known for playing handsome but conflicted knight Ser Jaime Lannister on TV’s ‘Game of Thrones’, as well as an unflinching look at the brutality of gang-related crime. It doesn’t demand being seen on the big screen (and its relatively limited release makes that difficult anyway), but it should be a solid watch for genre fans on home formats.
The script picks up with Money in his last days of lock-up. The camera lingers on his well-groomed handlebar moustache, his back tattoo reading ‘WHITE PRIDE’ above an enormous cross. He writes a letter of farewell to his 16-year-old son, whom he hasn’t seen in over a decade; the letter makes it clear that Money has no intention of seeing him ever again. Upon his release, Money is met by Shotgun (Jon Bernthal, convincing), one of Money’s fellow PEN1 gang members (an acronym for Public Enemy Number One) from in the clink. Shotgun takes Money to a ‘welcome home’ party, but when an unknown shooter unloads a clip into the host’s home, Shotgun goes underground with the help of Howie (Emory Cohen), a military vet who has set up a massive arms deal that the gang wants Money to act as point man for. Over the next few days, Money will evade the law, enemy gangs and possible double agents within PEN1 to carry out the big job. What he cannot count on is that his ex-wife and son aren’t also trying to re-establish contact with him.
Flashbacks (helpfully indicated by Jacob’s cleanshaven face) detail his fall from grace. After a boozy dinner with his wife Kate (Lake Bell), and best friend Tom (Max Greenfield), Jacob decides to drive the group home. When Jacob accidentally runs a red light, an oncoming vehicle ploughs into their car, killing Tom. Jacob is charged with driving under the influence and manslaughter – his lawyer advises him to accept a plea deal for less than two years behind bars, and he eventually does so, much to Kate’s distress. Given the fatality resulting from his crime, Jacob is sent to a prison with other violent offenders, where he learns on the first night that to be vulnerable is to be preyed upon. For protection, he aligns himself with PEN1, but soon realises that security does not come cheaply in this brutal world.
Coster-Waldau’s role asks the actor to span a range from Ser Jaime’s confidence and charm to the contained menace of a hardened crim. He sells the transition well, conveying the inevitable changes that accompany his prison milestones, such as taking part in his first riot, or having his sentence extended for various infringements. He also makes his concern for his ex and their child perceptible beneath his composed exterior; Money’s desire to protect his family is what makes his actions more than cold self-interest, and add a necessary wrinkle into any ambitions to leave PEN1 behind. His interactions with the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood, known simply as ‘the Beast’ (Holt McCallany), are fraught with tension. Both Coster-Waldau and McCallany are quietly unsettling, the latter using his bull-like physique to generate threat from his mere presence, and their shared screen time becomes a highlight of the film.
A third, less engaging plot thread follows Money’s parole officer, Kutcher (Omari Hardwick), as he tries to stop the arms deal from going ahead, while also attempting to find links to the Beast, who is suspected to be involved with ongoing criminal activities from behind bars. While the operations of Kutcher and his offsiders, including Sheriff Sanchez (Benjamin Bratt) and Officer Cole (Matt Gerald), tie into the climax of Money’s big deal, they don’t offer much excitement. Instead, they further muddy Money’s status as the film’s antihero, troubling the audience’s identification with the tragic figure by adding narrative heft to those aligned against him.
However, this is a slight quibble with the overall film. Writer and director Ric Roman Waugh has crafted a taught thriller hinged upon his capable leading man. Its outlook and its conclusions are hardly feel good cinema, but it comes across as a well-researched, unflinching insight into American penitentiaries. Fans of Coster-Waldau or hard-hitting crime dramas will be well served.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 30.
Icon Film Distribution.