Movie Review: SHOT CALLER (2017)

I’ve been slacking off in writing over the past two weeks due to both my own negligence, as well as outside commitments beyond my control. I should’ve kept on writing even then, as there’s no better inspiration than to just get on up and type it straight away. Sometimes I wish motivation like that can be hand-packaged in a bottle, gift-wrapped, and shipped to you whenever you need it, but alas, life goes on. Regardless of which, I’ve seen a lot of stuff over the past two weeks and I’m eager to share my views with you all, one by one.

First off the bat is this little-known crime drama called Shot Caller. I say little-known because it’s playing in only one cinema hall within the entire state, and for a movie that runs at exactly two hours, only four time-slots play it throughout a single day. I have not seen a single web, television or print advertisement of this film prior to yesterday, which prompted me that this may be shafted when the week is done. Entering the near-empty theater hall, I remained cautious.

Shot Caller centers around a freshly-released convict named Jacob “Money” Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of Game of Thrones fame). Seeking an exit from the criminal world he once ruled behind the concrete walls, his seedy world seduces him once again and he is forced back into *one-last-job*. On any other day, that would be grounds for a Direct-to-Video actioner one would usually find screening on a lazy midnight on Cinemax. Well, sometimes the pleasant surprises are packaged within well-kept secret, albiet *too* well-kept in this case.

What a wowzer this film turned out to be. Shot Caller is an extremely gripping film that takes unapologetic pride in its gritty urban crime drama roots in the 1970s and 1980s, back when films about morally ambiguous loners weren’t afraid to get down, dirty and masculine. The film thrives in genre tropes that films like Serpico, Straight Time and The Driver revel in, but it does so in a considerably handsome and crisp manner that it somehow feels wholesome and fresh, and simultaneously downright depressing at times.

The film also serves as a finale of sorts to the tryptych of prison-related drama films from writer and director Ric Roman Waugh, a former stuntman and stunt coordinator. Waugh first burst onto the writing and directing scene with 2008’s vastly overlooked Felon starring Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer, and then delivering Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s best film with 2013’s Snitch. All three films have men dealing with the consequences of their actions and how it affected those dear to them. The first two films, though, were far more optimistic in their portrayal of hope after destruction than this film, which goes emotionally downhill after a tragically unfortunate incident.

Waugh keeps things simple but gripping, gritty and affecting throughout. The film’s structure is divided into two non-linear segments, where they pop in and back out like actual memories. The first is set in the present day where Money gets fresh out of the joint and gets reacquainted with his prison pal Shotgun (Jon Bernthal), while also getting the unwanted attention of his parole officer Kutcher (Omari Hardwick). The second depicts Jacob 10 years before as a clean-cut family man with loving wife Kate (Lake Bell) and son Joshua, and how a single unfortunate event destroyed their lives. Once incarcerated, Jacob witnesses, and then reluctantly participates in, the brutalities of prison life, becoming the very thing he has to survive from.

The casting of Coster-Waldau as a tough ex-con may have raised my eyebrows slightly (I haven’t watched Game of Thrones yet…I know…), but he is very good here and pulls his role off effortlessly, becoming both menacing and sympathetic if time needs be. Waugh here deserves credit for beefing up his characters and making the film go from midnight fodder to must-watch. Every character here, and every supporting actor bringing their A-game here, feels genuine; every course of action feels plausible – there is not a single moment where I had to suspend my disbelief. If Waugh wanted to severely criticize the harsh dehumanization of convicts set by the United States Penal Code, I give him props for sticking to his guns and making it look and feel as authentic, politically incorrect and disturbing as possible, hammered home by a haunting score by Antonio Pinto.

The marketing technique of this film, one of 2017’s best thus far, infuriates me. I learn that it will hit theaters stateside in mid-August after a brief run in an exclusive VOD service, while it gets a limited theatrical release in select countries of the world. It doesn’t deserve this fate. It’s a crying shame quality films like these get swept under the rug, as if the distributors themselves were afraid of taking the cinematic risk of releasing the film moderately widely to find a niche audience. If you like hard-hitting dramas that leaves you with some food for thought, I highly encourage viewers to see this film before it exits theaters. So what if it recycles other plot elements. If it ain’t broke… and especially if it adds some new and exciting parts, why fix it?

[★★★★½] out of [★★★★★]

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