Review: 'Shot Caller' Starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jon Bernthal, & Lake Bell

I don't know if a movie like Shot Caller would have seen the light of day without a robust streaming distribution model, but it's a good thing it ended up where it did. The film is a prison drama commanded by the lead performance by Game of Thrones' Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, in the kind of role I don't think we've ever seen from him. It's a transformative performance most actors get maybe once in a career, and he sinks into every bit of it. Add in the experienced crime-drama cred of Snitch and Felon director Ric Roman Waugh, and Shot Caller is a solid little indie worth seeking out.

The particulars are nothing we haven't seen before, but it's the deep characterization of Waldau's character that sets Shot Caller apart. He plays Jacob Harlan, an ordinary family man with a gentle wife (Lake Bell, a minor but strong role) and son. One night while out on the town with some friends, Jacob has one too many and has a car accident that kills his friend (Max Greenfield, in a "why are you here?" role). Basically dead to rights, Jacob accepts his fate and does whatever it takes to get back to his family. And that means, the white collar businessman needs to find friends, protection, and a new persona altogether. His transformation from innocent newbie to hardened soldier nicknamed Money is a believable one. It starts with simple assault to gain cred; then once recruited into a group of Aryans his crimes mount by degrees: drugs, intimidation, and finally murder.

Again, it's nothing we haven't seen before, but the film does a good job of showing how someone like Jacob can become addicted to such a radical change in lifestyle. Jacob was a powerful figure in the business world and there's power to be had within the prison walls, too. Waugh's screenplay helps us piece Jacob's logic together through flashbacks to his early days behind bars, contrasted with his latter activities as a boss running guns alongside a shady crew that may or may not have his back. There are compromises Jacob makes that the old him would be horrified by, but make perfect sense in the kill-or-be-killed world he's willingly become a part of as Money.

The evolution is pretty fascinating, and Waldau gives the finest performance of his career outside of Westeros. His track record away from HBO's hit series has been spotty, but he's found highlights in films such a Headhunters, A Second Chance, and Netflix's Small Crimes which is another crime movie in which Waldau plays another criminal in search of some kind of redemption. He's surrounded here by strong supporting performances by actors with the skill to make the most of limited screen time. Jon Bernthal as a member of Jacob's street crew, and Jeffrey Donovan as the seemingly benign gang leader  who recruits Jacob initially. Also, you'll scarcely recognize Holt McCallany as the appropriately named Beast, the gang's monstrous enforcer. Omari Hardwicke of Power fame overdoes his tough-guy act as Jacob's hardass parole officer, while Emory Cohen is miscast as Money's na├»ve follower.

Waugh knows the prison genre but it doesn't change that he's merely efficient as a filmmaker. He knows pacing and can stage a competent shot but you won't find much creative in his style, and that occasionally makes Shot Caller seem like a run-of-the-mill movie when the material is far superior than that. There isn't a ton of violence but when it does you probably won't be expecting it. The blood flows quickly and brutally, adding to Money's growing apprehension and acceptance of the events around him.  There comes a point in Shot Caller where there's simply no turning back for Money. We can see it in his eyes, and despite all of the horrible things he's done we still feel something for the loss of what he used to have. It's a powerful moment captured beautifully by Waldau, helping to make this a film that shouldn't be overlooked.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5