Empty Balcony: Shot Caller

Jacob (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) was having a good day. He and a co-worker, Tom (Max Greenfield), were about to close a big deal, and took their wives out for a double-date to celebrate. Too bad for Jacob, then, that he had one or two too many drinks. Otherwise, the red light he ran, and the accident he caused that killed Tom, probably would not have resulted in jail time. As it is, vehicular homicide and all the DUI stuff has left Jacob with a two and a half year stretch in a maximum security prison. His lawyer advises his upper middle class client not to show weakness while serving his time, and Jacob decides to run with that advice.

Such is the setup to writer/director Ric Roman Waugh’s violent crime flick, Shot Caller. Continuing to explore themes Waugh presented in 2008’s Felon, Shot Caller follows Jacob’s transformation from new fish trying to adjust to prison life, to hardened gang lord. It really is an extraordinary transformation, but that’s because it is so unlikely. But whether or not Jacob’s journey is believable doesn’t really matter. This movie isn’t a morality play, nor does it serve as a critique of the way American prisons manufacture as many criminals as they house, although it is impossible for those messages not to be inferred by a viewer.

Waugh chooses to keep the focus on Jacob’s actions and leaves it up to the audience to decide whether or not they make any sense. In the exaggerated world of film, prison life is an unending battle, so Jacob’s decisions do make sense. Real life being far more grey than that, it’s hard to believe how easily Jacob slips into being a human horror show, but the film is entertaining enough that all the narrative leaps and shortcuts don’t harm it too much.

Shot Caller is heavy on the prison clichés, as well. Two decades after Oz hit cable, followed by countless documentary shows, a viewer will probably be very familiar with all the stuff that goes on behind the walls. The prison self-segregates into racial gangs, and Jacob, being white, hooks up with the neo-Nazis, led by the frightening Bottles (Jeffrey Donovan). Bottles sets Jacob on grim tasks aiding the other members of the gang, principally Shotgun (Jon Bernthal), and Chopper (Evan Jones).

Jacob makes the mistake of being captured on camera shanking another prisoner, and it’s off to the SHU for an extended sentence. Any possibility that he would emerge from prison the same man that went in is now over. In the SHU, Jacob meets the true head honcho, the big time shot caller, The Beast (Holt McCallany), and is welcomed formally into the gang. After ten years behind bars, Jacob is released, and immediately gets to work securing a large illicit arms deal.

The film is not told chronologically. It bounces back and forth between Jacob’s time in prison and his post-release efforts to get the arms deal done. His stretch in the SHU earned him respect in the gang, but also the critical eye of law enforcement. Jacob is working some angle that doesn’t become clear until late in the film, all the while evading the cops. He also has a wife and kid out there that are present in the film just enough to justify some of what Jacob does, but not much more than that.

The performances from Donovan and McCallany were the standouts in the film, even though there’s not a lot of screen time between the two of them. Coster-Waldau was a good choice to play Jacob. One can see on his face at what stage he is in during his transformation. Early on, there is horror and revulsion, but as Jacob’s conscience is whittled away Coster-Waldau takes on a frightening countenance made of granite. It’s more than just aggressive facial hair.

It’s hard to say that watching Jacob turn into a hardened criminal is an enjoyable experience, because unlike in most films, there is no redemption to be had. Yet it is a good watch. It helps to be inured against film violence, but it’s not a requirement. What may turn viewers off is the tension that wraps this film like a death shroud. At no point is there any hope for a happy ending. No hints. No glimmers. Nothing. This film is the opposite of an escapist, shoot-em-up action flick.