Shot Caller (2017)

Shot Caller first published by Sight & Sound, January 2018

Review: It begins with a dissonance between sound and image. We hear in voiceover the nuanced letter, filled with tenderness and pain, that Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster Waldau) has just written to the beloved teenaged son whom he has not seen in 10 years and may never see again. Yet after the camera pans through a prison interior to Cell Number 13, we see Jacob’s forearm, covered in the tattoos that signify his allegiance to the Aryan Brotherhood (alongside the name of his wife and son). Indeed, what makes Shot Caller so compelling to watch, aside from its twisty thrills and convoluted plotting, is the way in which it allows its characters to be both members of vicious, racist gangs, and loving fathers and husbands. They are all layerings that these convicts’ identities have accumulated, like the extensions of their sentences or the expansion of permanent ink across their bodies, inscribing the constraint of fateful trajectories which they barely control.

Fatalism is key here. Shot Caller opens in medias res, with Jacob about to be released on parole, even as the man in the cell next door is found hanging. Yet only Jacob’s neighbour has truly escaped, for Jacob himself, in his determination to survive and to ensure that no harm comes to his family, must successfully broker an arms sale for his gang, with the police and even one of his own comrades circling to stop this happening. The number of the motel room where he is temporarily residing is the same as the number of the cell where he was last interned, underlining the notion that he remains a prisoner to his destiny whether inside or out. This tense storyline unfolds even as an intricate sequence of flashbacks show us how Jacob came to be incarcerated. Jacob started out as a white-collar financier and family man, but from the moment he was sent to prison for his involvement in a fatal drunk-driving accident (the number 13 encoding his bad luck), his fate was sealed. As his own lawyer made clear, if he did not immediately stand up for himself and choose a gang for protection, it was unlikely he would make it alive to the end of his sentence – and membership comes at the price of further criminal actions, and constant exhibitions of fealty to an ideology that, though far from his own, he has soon perfectly embodied.

Written and directed by Ric Roman Waugh (Snitch, 2013), Shot Caller is a time-leaping saga of one man caught in a machine that breeds hardened, if internally conflicted, criminals – and by witnessing Jacob’s own divided loyalties, we are left with the impression that the gang’s other members and even its ultimate ‘shot caller’ Jerry ‘the Beast’ Manning (Holt McAllany) are as much double-dealing products of the penitentiary’s culture as Jacob himself. Jacob’s bloody ascent to the top is simultaneously a descent, in a claustrophobic thriller that is also a j’accuse to America’s penal system.

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Synopsis: Jacob Harlon is a financier and family man in LA. One night out drunk with his wife Kate and two friends, he crashes his car, causing a fatality. Sent to prison, he quickly learns that to survive inside he has to join the Aryan Brotherhood for protection – and joining them entails smuggling drugs and murdering other inmates when ordered. During an organised riot in the yard, Jacob intervenes to stop Herman Gómez, leader of the Southern Mexicans, getting killed, and is himself caught on camera stabbing Gómez’s attacker, thus earning himself a longer sentence in a maximum security facility. There he wins the trust of Jerry ‘the Beast’ Manning, the Aryan Brotherhood’s ‘shot caller’, and is ordered to keep a low profile until he gets out.

Released on parole after a total of ten years, Jacob is ordered by Manning, on threat of harm to Kate and their son Jacob, to broker an arms deal between Afghan War vet Howie and Gómez’s gang. Jacob’s parole officer Kutcher, who is using Jacob’s former prison buddy Frank “Shotgun” as an informant, knows that Jacob is in on the deal – but Jacob in turn knows that Frank is an informant. On the night of the deal, Jacob kills Frank, and deliberately leaves a phone trail for Kutcher and his men to intervene. Arrested again, Jacob returns to maximum security, and kills Manning to prevent the murder of his own family. Now Jacob is the gang’s shot caller, and will never see Kate and Jacob again.

© Anton Bitel