We begin with a hardened white supremacist writing a letter to his son to bring about some closure and say goodbye. He is released from prison sporting a mullet, moustache, and plenty of tattoos, and is greeted by other gangsters and criminals as a force of nature, a power player, who is renowned within the Aryan Brotherhood. His parole officer is aware he may have been tasked with carrying out an arms deal on behalf of the leader of the Brotherhood who is in solitary confinement in that very same prison. Then we flash back to ten years ago, and this same prisoner is a middle-class family-man with a job as a stockbroker, a nice house, and no gang connections whatsoever.
Shot Caller is built on the mystery of how this middle-of-the-road regular citizen became a high-level gangster within a white power group, and so in that sense it is a hard film to follow. Through flashbacks we see his past life—a night out with friends, an extra bottle of wine, an accident whilst driving over the alcohol limit, a dead passenger, a guaranteed prison sentence—and here we can understand his choices. Faced with seven years or two-and-a-half, we can understand why he pleads guilty to gain the shorter term. Once inside, the actions he takes to survive are also relatable. As he is convicted of a violent crime he is sent to Chino: a violent place for men of violent ways. It is his actions following his release which we, as the audience, struggle to relate to, and it is the motive for these that the finale of the film hinges upon.
I won’t spoil why he is doing what he is doing, however I will say that I think the first and second acts of the film would have been more successful with the motive revealed. That being said, the final act is incredibly strong and when coupled with the explanation of his motives, it becomes iron-clad. The issue is sticking with the film up until that point, but a patient viewer will here definitely be rewarded. Perhaps the best viewing of Shot Caller is the second one, knowing how it will end, as then the character study which this film presents can be fully explored.
Shot Caller is a violent film, but more so it is a tragedy. Director Ric Roman Waugh has previously explored the institutionalising of prisoners in his low-budget but excellent Felon, and here he returns to these themes, though in a different way. This is not the breaking down of a man to his base instincts, but the building up of one. His tragedy is in his making.
The lead role is played with resolve by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and he gives his everything. The performance is committed and convincing, with Coster-Waldau progressing from a skinny and soft stockbroker to a steel-skinned strongman. His moral corruption mirrors his physical transformation, as with each tattoo and bulging muscle comes less conscience and more willingness to kill. He goes from a man who makes money to a monster who mercilessly murders, and it is fascinating to watch.
The supporting cast are all excellent, with not a single performance out of place. His long-suffering and later former wife is played with subtlety by Lake Bell, and she holds her own here against the likes of Jon Bernthal and Jeffrey Donovan as her husband’s prison associates, Omari Hardwick and Benjamin Bratt as his parole officer and a police officer interested in his case respectively, and the heavyweight Holt McCallany as the head of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Shot Caller is a hard-edged film with a central vulnerability, and it is an unusual take on a usually over-macho and simplistic genre. The story is considered and thoughtful, and the racism dialled down considerably from other white supremacist fare. It helps that the protagonist is not racist, of course, but instead a man simply seeking to continue breathing in an impossible situation. The film is tragic and memorable, and will stick with you long after it has ended, leaving you with the question of what you would do facing a similar situation. That is something the film cannot answer, but is left up to you.