A criminal is made, not born.
Character arcs are compelling for a reason; we’re fascinated by change. It’s difficult to be compelled by a character that doesn’t grow or learn anything, but one that’s dynamic, responds and sheds their skin through desperation captures our imagination.
It’s for this reason that Shot Caller is so thrilling.
The film opens with Money, a powerful gang leader played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, being released from prison. He cuts an imposing figure, speaking little, lumbering from room to room like a bear, feared and respected by prison guards and gangsters alike. Cut ten years earlier and Money is a cheery stockbroker named Jacob with a suburban house and a nuclear family. As we try to work out how such a catastrophic transformation could have occurred we witness a horrific car crash that kills Jacob’s best friend. Pleading guilty to manslaughter Jacob is dropped in the deep end at prison, joining a white supremacist gang out of desperation to get protection on the inside. What follows is a hypnotic descent into depravity as Jacob becomes Money, running drugs and committing murders. What starts as a survival gambit becomes a lifestyle, and he is eventually transferred to a maximum security facility where he catches the eye of the Aryan Brotherhood leader, Beast (Holt McCallany), who recruits him as his second-in-command.
As Money kills for the first time, a voiceover says “The truth is, we were all somebody’s little angel once”. The film stands on this idea, contrasting Money’s pursuit for power in the outside world following his release, and his fall from grace on the inside. This film crawls under your skin; Money is a monster, but Jacob seems like an ordinary guy. How many of us have the potential to embody the raw, animal power the Money represents? How successful would any of us be in the game of survival?
Shot Caller is a damn good film, not only does it bristle with narrative questions, it’s just a solidly made film. There’s a special feeling when you’re in the hands of a good director, and right from the first scene Shot Caller moves with confidence. This is Ric Roman Waugh’s third prison film, and his experience shows; it’s a lean, mean film that refuses to indulge. The violence is extreme and bloody, but never gratuitous. The emotional depth of the characters are fleshed out barely enough to motivate and propel them through the film, but the camera doesn’t dwell on Money’s tears as he reunites with his son. Scenes in the yard are paranoid and sunburnt. The maximum security facility is dark and restricting. Everything is so evocative, nothing is excessive, and the cast that populates the film are fantastic. Supporting performances by Jon Bernthal, as a spiky white supremacist, Omari Hardwick, Money’s unstoppable parole officer, and Lake Bell, Money’s distraught wife, all threaten to steal the spotlight from Coster-Waldau’s relentless portrayal of a man who will do anything to survive.
If most good films are made up of disparate parts that are weaker on their own, Shot Caller is an amazing film, composed of incredible pieces.