While American audiences wait for the Hollywood remake of Jacques Audiard’s gritty 2010 French thriller “A Prophet,” Ric Roman Waugh swoops in with a comparably gritty prison epic of his own: Debuting on DirecTV two weeks before hitting theaters, “Shot Caller” dramatizes how a hardcore stint behind bars transforms an otherwise docile citizen — in this case, a white-collar wheeler-dealer (Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) convicted of a DUI manslaughter charge and tossed in with the violent offenders — into a ruthless crime boss.
The character’s arc proves considerably more complex than that description suggests, as Waugh forgoes cheap action-movie gimmicks, offering up instead a haunting psychological portrait of an intelligent man forced to completely reinvent himself before he can even dream of seeking redemption for his previous sins. “Shot Caller” marks the third time that writer-director Waugh (who previously helmed “Felon” and “Snitch”) has taken audiences into this intimidating underworld, and the tough, no-punches-pulled result is clearly informed by firsthand research into the milieu. It’s a genre movie, to be sure, but there’s an impressive sense of authenticity — in the language, the locations and the overall texture —that goes a long way to sell the scenario: Waugh isn’t inventing the idea that so-called “corrections facilities” can just as easily corrupt, but dramatizing how it’s been known to happen.
His protagonist (“hero” isn’t the right word) is a man named Jacob, whom we meet in the slammer. He’s just about to be released on parole, and a letter to his son heard in voiceover offers some insight into his motives — but only partial clues, really. As played by Coster-Waldau, Jacob is a clenched-teeth cipher who says little and looks like Clint Eastwood might, if he slicked his grey hair back, got a few prison tats and grew out his mustache à la Hulk Hogan. No sooner is he back in the civilian world than his welcome-home party is disrupted by a drive-by shooting, which tells you a lot about what life on the outside will be like for him now.
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You wouldn’t guess it by looking at him, but Jacob once led a completely different life, and Waugh eventually gets around to revealing it, although the relatively late placement of these flashbacks (which show him happily married to Lake Bell, and the responsible father of a young son) make those earlier, more innocent days seem a million miles away. Had “Shot Caller” led with Jacob’s career as a lawyer, the whole thrust of the movie surely would have shifted to feel like an indictment of a system that might ruin such a life, whereas Waugh seems to be more interested in how a smart guy discovers and adapts to the complex politics of prison life.
To survive, Jacob is forced to align himself with a group of neo-Nazi skinheads, doing favors on demand — finally earning their total confidence during a massive brawl between rival factions in the yard. Taking an active role in that battle, a whirlwind of handheld cameras and rapid stabbings, may have saved Jacob’s life, but it also adds years to his sentence, and at a certain point, he decides to erase himself from all that he knew before, much to his family’s frustration and confusion.
Whereas such films typically introduce their heroes already hard-boiled, “Shot Caller” spends more than a decade in the kettle with him, observing the transformation take place (albeit in nonlinear fashion). Very late in a movie, Waugh finally reveals how everything Jacob has done was for his family’s benefit, and how threats to their safety ultimately forced him to outsmart those who call the shots — in this case, the Donkey Kong-like bad guy tossing barrels down the chain is a man known only as the Beast (Holt McCallany). Maximum-security incarceration does nothing to limit his power, and even guards do his bidding.
The power structure is incredibly complex here, further obscured by a realistic confusion between good and bad behavior. In a scene that may as well have been lifted from a David Ayer movie, a cop (Omari Hardwick) risks his own life raiding a trigger-happy suspect’s home, but he’s not above manipulating snitches to get his man, a paradox that doesn’t faze Benjamin Bratt’s fellow officer in the slightest. While Jon Bernthal’s heavily inked thug plays both sides, Jacob also keeps us guessing as to his allegiances, advising Afghanistan vet and amateur gun-runner Howie (Emory Cohen) to stay “clean,” even as he orchestrates an elaborate arms deal.
Oddly enough, considering Waugh’s background in stunts, the movie doesn’t indulge overly in the action scenes. Violence, when it happens, flares up quickly and is snuffed before you know it — and yet, the same blood-chilling tension we might sense in watching a snake-charmer at work permeates nearly every scene, as the sheer threat of what these men are capable of lies coiled and ready to strike at any moment.
Frankly, most audiences are probably expecting a more kinetic thriller, but “Shot Caller” is all about potential energy, and that lends it an unexpected but welcome seriousness. The film’s epic, Greek-tragedy ambitions overreach somewhat, especially as Jacob’s greatest risks and sacrifices feel rushed toward the end, and yet, appearances can be deceiving in a film that looked perfectly generic on the surface — which, of course, is exactly the point its trying to make about its protagonist.