Shot Caller. 2017. Directed & Written by Ric Roman Waugh.
Starring Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Jon Bernthal, Omari Hardwick, Lake Bell, Michael Landes, Jeffrey Donovan, Benjamin Bratt, Emory Cohen, Holt McCallany, & Chris Browning.
Bold Films/DirecTV/Participant Media/Relativity Media
Rated R. 121 minutes.
Ric Roman Waugh’s Felon is honestly one of the more surprising crime-thrillers since 2000, because it wasn’t a film I expected to find fascinating. It seemed the regular, same old crime fare to which we’ve become accustomed over the years. But it blew me out of the water, from Val Kilmer’s fine tuned performance to Stephen Dorff playing the best character he’s played in a long time.
Now he’s given us another chapter in his prison-related saga: Shot Caller. On the surface it, again, feels like something we’ve seen before, time and time again. Yet there’s a number of things different about this film from other prison pictures, even the previous Felon. Instead of a pointless journey into the prison system, Waugh offers us a poignant, if not violent and disturbing account of how normal people go from normal to indoctrinated into a gang’s lifestyle.
At a point in time where so many white Americans feel energised by hatred, specifically in terms of race, Shot Caller presents a vision of the way in which some people get caught up in the gang world by mere coincidence. The film doesn’t seek to normalise hatred, in fact it goes to good length in trying to present to us a situation where a family man becomes a monster moulded by the prison system, its desperate, inescapable limitations, and the lack of choices for men inside those walls who aren’t hardened criminals. Yet.
The most immediate thing is the desperation of the non-criminal entering into prison, shown in such a subtle and terrifying manner. Part of this – a huge part – is the contained, subdued performance of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, whose character Jacob feels incredibly real. For instance, his first night and first morning in jail are all played out across his face, as behind him in another bunk a new inmate who came in with him is gang raped by other prisoners, and he quietly acknowledges to himself the hideous realities of living in prison. As if to say: I accept this, and today I’ll start to change. Thus begins the transformation of a normal person into a prisoner and criminal.
Waugh’s method of storytelling here is powerful, passing from present day up through to Jacob’s incarceration and the process by which he becomes indoctrinated into the gang life in jail. Then we go through to another arrest, which takes Jacob back inside prison. We watch, effectively, a man’s life spiral out of control. Tragically, we can also see the process as a whole, how it happens to many men who’ve made a horrible mistake for which they’re jailed, then how they go into prison only to be forced to choose the only life left available to them that doesn’t involve daily beatings and nightly gang rapes while even the guards can be paid off to turn a blind eye.
The way Waugh shows us and tells us the story allows for maximum effect, as we start out with the already hardened Jacob and backpedal as we simultaneously move forward to see, to understand how it came to this moment.
It’s the humanity in Jacob that offers us a better look at prison life than something less nuanced, or say listening to Fox News constantly or any other similar leaning publication that treats crime and criminals as a monolith. Waugh writes about the unfortunate, desperate lure of the criminal lifestyle in jail, how it doesn’t pull EVERYONE in by virtue of any weakness in themselves. Rather it can act as a spinning whirlpool, sucking people into its wake, leaving no other choice but to become part of it to ensure survival and not die a brutal death, in turn sucking others into its force, too.
“And then a place like this forces us to become warriors or victims. Nothing in between can exist here.”
Prisons, for those who end up there in a cruel twist of fate or by their own mistakes as opposed to criminals lacking any sense of morality, are places of desperation, a place with a dearth of options where much of what goes against regular morality is often the last vestige of the prisoner, their sole remaining option in a hellish place. Jacob’s journey is the epitome of what it’s like for a normal person to experience a sudden change in standing. He was a man who had too many drinks, accidentally ran a red light and killed his best friend in a car accident, and this one moment ends up defining the rest of existence, shaping him, his family, and the people around him.
Shot Caller is a testament to how we as a society have allowed prison to become a place where someone who makes a mistake, even if it’s a fatal one, can’t just serve their time as the law states, but instead a place where this man is no longer allowed middle ground: he must either be penitent through abuse and torture via other inmates, or he must relinquish penitence in lieu of day-to-day survival at the additional cost of his morality. The only bit of humanity Jacob actually retains involves his refusal to fall into the white supremacy of the gang he rides with in prison, though it doesn’t excuse his loss of conscience; all else is permanently lost.
A great, shattering concept in Shot Caller is the double-edged sword going into prison, for a man such as Jacob. He must become a monster in order to live, which further requires he hold his family at arm’s length, if not further. So much so that even when free, out in the world, he still exists in a cage, in a prison not of his own making but one that’s inevitable due to the state of correctional institutions in America.
Most importantly, Waugh is all but shouting at society, wondering how we can all allow such places to exist where men – often young men – are sent to choose the protection of a gang, shoving balloons of heroin in their rectum over being raped in the night, throat cut as they sleep, who knows what else. Moreover, this calls into question our own morality, a society’s sense of morals, as well as what we truly believe to be the function of the prison: is it really a place for penitence, or more just a warehouse of meat where men are sent to either live as beasts or die, sometimes experiencing a spiritual death full of abuse and rape and never ending violence?
Prison flicks are a dime a dozen. This is one of the best prison thrillers post-2000. Much as I loved Waugh’s Felon, this one takes it up a notch. Best of all is that Shot Caller contains great performances, an excellent score, and a message that speaks volumes, particularly in an era where we need to both be critical of white supremacy but also understand how SOME (not saying it’s a huge portion; most racists are utter scum) people wind up in an ugly life because of a lack of choices.
And while Waugh’s film focuses on a white protagonist, we could use more films like this for all races. A parallel to this for black culture is Menace II Society, which illustrated the dangerous life of young African-American men in Los Angeles living the gang lifestyle, simultaneously not judging, showing us HOW and WHY things are like that; not simply that they are, something people know well enough already. These movies don’t glorify prison, nor do they glorify gangs.
We need less action trying to use guns and gangsters and prison to be edgy, more stuff like Menace II Society and now Shot Caller. Both use all these elements to try getting at the core of what crime and prison do to people, how they do it, and why, to get at an understanding that can help us grow, perhaps if anything it can aid us in coping as a society until we figure out the right way to do things.
That’s what art is all about.