Main cast: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jacob Harlon), Omari Hardwick (Kutcher), Lake Bell (Kate Harlon), Jon Bernthal (Shotgun), Emory Cohen (Howie), Jeffrey Donovan (Bottles), Evan Jones (Chopper), Benjamin Bratt (Sheriff Sanchez), and Holt McCallany (The Beast)
Director: Ric Roman Waugh
This is a prison movie, but it’s also a bit more than that. The standard formula is a man ending up in prison only to befriend the downtrodden inmates, unite them to trash the bad guys, et cetera, but Shot Caller is different. It’s about a generally normal guy who ends up in prison and ends up rising up the ranks of the Aryan Brotherhood in order to survive, and ends up discovering that he has lost everything that he cares about.
Jacob Harlon and his wife Kate have a reasonably happy life with their son. One night, while they and their best friends go out for some drinks, he drives while intoxicated and ends up killing his best friend. The dead guy’s widow sues, and eventually the guilt-ridden Jacob decides not to accept a plea bargain and instead serves the full sentence for his misdeed. In prison, he acts on reflex when he bumps into a black inmate and that guy starts a fight. Thinking that his actions are racial-motivated, the Aryan Brotherhood members approach him and offer him their protection, provided that he runs errands for them, such as smuggling heroin up his rear end and such. He agrees, and ends up being too well at it, culminating with him murdering another inmate and being caught on camera doing it.
His relatively short sentence soon becomes extended to ten years, and he decides to let go of his wife and son, telling Kate to divorce him and forget that he ever exists. He is transferred to another prison, where he is approached by the big boss himself, the Beast, to do more errands. Jacob eventually becomes the second in command. And then… release day! Until he realizes that, even outside, he can never truly escapes the clutches of the Aryan Brotherhood. Even if he has cut ties with his wife and son, they know he still cares for them, and they will use that affection as leverage to keep him as their errand boy.
Shot Caller weaves back and forth from the past (when Jacob is in prison) to present (when Jacob is out of prison and finds himself arranging for an arms deal on behalf of the Aryan Brotherhood), and it’s a tight, compelling movie because of both its refreshing break from normal prison movie tropes and generally good performances from the cast. While this won’t be to him what American History X was to Edward Norton, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau broods prettily and sports that unwashed hobo look in a disquietingly attractive manner.
The trouble is, this movie doesn’t allow him to stretch his range much, as the script – also by Ric Roman Waugh – is deliberately vague about Jacob’s feelings. I have to believe that, despite clearly not enjoying the kill or the power that comes from his climbing up the prison hierarchy, he must keeping doing what he does because… plot? And then, everything he does in the end, in what is basically a series of coincidences piled upon coincidences as well as pure luck, is because he loves his family and wants to keep them safe? If yes, then why go as far as he did up to that point? Everything seems to point to plot necessity than organic character development, and hence, the movie feels a little contrived no matter how well acted it is. Jacob, therefore, is a protagonist that just does things and more things happen as a result, so that the movie can keep going.
So yes, Shot Caller is a solid watch, but as much as I’d like to, I can’t get emotionally invested into or feel anything about this movie.