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'Shot Caller' shows strength but ends up locking itself up

"Shot Caller" tells a story of a man named Jacob Harlan, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who had it all: a beautiful wife who loved him, a kid and a successful career. All of this changed one night when he was charged with a DUI manslaughter and was sent to a federal penitentiary to serve his time. This ends up being the first of many catalysts that charts the journey of the titular character from straight-laced man to a leader of a neo-Nazi group.

Director Ric Roman Waugh shoots this film with a raw sensibility, framing scenes unnervingly close to the characters and a relies heavily on the handheld shot. He isn’t afraid to show blood or sweat and scenes of violence become much more rough-and-tumble and intimate. The overall style is a bit drab and plain sometimes but in general, it works. This is specifically thanks to cinematographer Dana Gonzalez, who isn't afraid to bring a little light and color into his frames. The score, on the other hand, is run of the mill and doesn't really add anything.

Conformity is perhaps the main theme of the picture. In prison, we see Jacob trying to survive by playing by the rules, which pressures him to initiate himself in a gang to have people watch his back. The character of Jacob is one with heart, one who doesn't want to do the wrong thing, but finds himself forced to. If he decides to keep to himself and serve his time unaffiliated, he could very well end up dead within the first week. If he rolls with a crew, he will have to do their bidding in exchange for protection. Little does he know that this fixture as a gang member is as permanent as the tattoos on his body and that he would have to live by the gang’s code inside and outside of prison.

If the film focused more on the transformation of its main character and further revealed the politics of prison life, then perhaps it would've been stronger. The film shines brightest when we see Coster-Waldau's character wrestling with his actions and the pressures that are put upon him. This a man who had to leave his wife and kid because of a stupid mistake and is forced to live a different life than the one he wants to go back to. Instead, the film jumps back and forth between the past and the present, with the character arc left dwindling in service of a run of the mill plot. The scenes of him in the present feel staler than the prison scenes since they center on a plotline of a weapons exchange with characters the audience doesn't really care about or relate to. Still, those scenes remain watchable thanks to the inclusion of actors like Jon Bernthal, Benjamin Bratt, Omari Hardwick and Lake Bell. Their performances were all able to make up for the weaker aspects of the story.

Despite these weaker scenes, the film wouldn't have worked if it weren't for its lead, Coster-Waldau. He was able to convey a sensitivity against a toughened exterior of his character that makes the audience sympathize with him. Coster-Waldau’s acting, in and out of prison, is subtle and shows us just enough to know that he is not the same man that he was. Although the film bogged itself down in the latter half, he continued to show us Jacob's internal wrestle and moral confusions

Grade: C+

Shot Caller is now available on VOD (video on demand) platforms.

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