Damn. Shot Caller is a piece of hard-as-nails cinema. I’d love to see the expression on Walter Hill’s face after viewing this testosterone drenched display of movie machismo; the fact that it’s basically air-tight from a conceptual level only helps to make the film feel all the more spectacular overall. Written and directed by Ric Roman Waugh, a former stuntman turned indie filmmaker who apparently has a fetish for prison narratives (previous credits include the very good Felon; Snitch, which I’ve not seen; and the intriguing sounding In the Shadows, which sounds like a riff on Richard Rush’s The Stunt Man), and it’s abundantly clear he understands this milieu extremely well. Maybe too well, as Shot Caller made me quite afraid of spending any amount of time in jail, which I would have to imagine was Waugh’s intent.
Circular in its construction and devised with a driving sense of forwarding momentum despite a nonlinear presentation, Shot Caller is never unnecessarily gory or over-plotted, instead relying on smart and explosive moments of graphic violence to punctuate the gritty story. Waugh’s anxious and dangerous little B-movie transcends its trappings as a result of dynamic acting from everyone in the beefed-up cast, with Nikolaj Coster-Waldau turning in a transformative piece of acting that elevates the picture to an even higher plateau. The film pivots on a successful family man who causes a deadly traffic accident. He’s sent to prison, and when he gets there, he realizes that nothing will ever be the same, and must fight to stay alive by any means possible. And yet, there’s so much more, none of which I’ll hint at or spoil.
Add in Joe Bernthal (love this guy!), Jeffrey Donovan, Emory Cohen, Holt McCallany, Benjamin Bratt, Evan Jones, Omari Hardwick, and Lake Bell and you’ve got rock-solid support from a deep supporting cast. Everyone registers with authority, and Bernthal has definitely got the market-cornered in terms of playing hot-tempered alpha-males who love to get physical. The matter-of-fact cinematography by Dana Gonzales gets down and dirty with all of the bloody shankings and hand-to-hand killings, and there’s a prison yard brawl where nearly everyone is brandishing some sort of shiv that feels as visceral and fucked up as what was shown in a similar scene in The Raid 2. Michelle Tesoro’s strict editing keeps a fast pace and goes a long way in escalating the inherent tension in Waugh’s scenario, while the film belies its likely low budget with a terrific sense of verisimilitude in and out of lockdown, with some great nocturnal locations chosen for maximum atmosphere.
Shot Caller is an R-rated actioner made for people who really appreciate this type of hard-nosed entertainment and a total rebuke of the homogenized, PG-13, CGI-jizz-whiz culture that the major movie studios are so obsessed with. So naturally, that means that Shot Caller was entirely funded by independent sources of money, with Direct TV helping to pull it all together and showcasing the end product on their service a few weeks before anyone else. Whatever it takes is my motto. I’m so happy that these new outlets are catering to the people whose interests have been abandoned by the big-dollar suits.
Review by Nick Clement