Safety comes with a price.
“Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage.” is how the quote goes, and it’s true to some extent, the most dangerous prison is what lies deep inside us. Perhaps there is true evil in all of us, and that begs the nature vs nurture question. Director and writer Ric Roman Waugh explores the complexities of human nature and how our innermost violent behaviour is rooted deep within, just waiting for the right (or wrong) situation to come along so it can be unleashed. And the violence is certainly unleashed in Shot Caller, a film not for the faint-hearted or the easily triggered. This is a glimpse into the brutal world behind bars. And, by the end we are left reeling from the horrors that have occurred.
Money (an almost unrecognisable Nikolaj Coster-Waldau from Game of Thrones) has just been released from prison where he has been institutionalised for the last 10 years, missing out on his son’s childhood. Money is covered in tattoos, he’s a burly, well built man, with a no nonsense attitude. You do not want to mess with this guy. Despite being released, Money is denied the opportunity to turn over a new leaf, and has been instructed by gang leader “The Beast” (Mindhunter‘s Holt McCallany) to orchestrate a major crime with a brutal rival gang on the streets of Southern California, involving the shipment of smuggled weapons from the US to Mexico. On the other side, Money meets up with old prison buddy Shotgun (The Punisher Jon Bernthal) who seems to be acting oddly around Money.
As the narrative unfolds we discover Money’s past and the events leading up to his present actions. It turns out that Money’s real name is Jacob, and he was once a successful business man until he made a terrible mistake and was sent to prison. He is suddenly thrust into a world where everything is black and white (quite literally), behind bars people stick with their own kind and life outside is irrelevant. This presents Money with a dilemma, as in order to survive he has to adopt a whole new personality and embrace a more toxic masculinity.
The film presents us with some ethical questions to consider, what would we do if we were in Jacob’s shoes? Is the prison system beyond repair? Is the labelling theory actually correct, and if we label all men monsters do we inevitably help create the monsters inside them? It’s certainly a hard film to digest, and you may struggle to stomach the violence, this is less Porridge and more Oz. Waugh does seem to get his kicks from showing us an orgy of up close and personal killings and vivid red blood. Shot Caller doesn’t shy away from the grittiness of prison life, nor does it apologise, there are no safe spaces behind bars and everyone is a potential victim no matter what their status is.
The cast is very strong and everyone delivers a solid performance. Coster-Waldau proves himself as a talented, almost method, actor appearing to be fully immersed in his role. He presents Money as a realistic, three dimensional character who could exist within the prison system, the forgotten man who has been forced to embrace the darkness in order to survive. This is very much his film, and it’s refreshing to be presented with a role which is well-written and complicated. Money/Jacob could have been taken directly from Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, the quality of writing and character development is that well executed. It makes a refreshing change to see such quality on the big screen.
The film is shot in a slick, stylish fashion reminiscent of Michael Mann’s Heat or David Ayer’s End of Watch, with the vast sprawling L.A. becoming an additonal character of the piece. The use of the hand-held camera is used to great effect in certain scenes, especially during the prison riot which helps add to the confusion and panic. Many of the scenes take place in the nighttime or in bright harsh daylight, making a striking contrast – the light versus dark. A neat metaphor for the internal battle that Money is working through.
There are some issues, so many secondary characters introduced and far too much exposition, Shot Caller could have been trimmed by, at least, a half hour to pick up the pace and action. (Or developed into a decent television series). Certainly when you’re left wanting to know more about the lead character and what happens after we fade to black, it is always a good sign.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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