A performance removed from his knowing talents on Game of Thrones, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau‘s turn in Shot Caller is a strong, powerful showcase for the actor in a film worthy of seeking out during its limited season.
When Ric Roman Waugh‘s film begins, Coster-Waldau’s character, Jacob Harlon, is referred to as “Money”, and his appearance checks all the correct criteria for how a much-feared inmate should look; his impressive physique adorned with tattoos, one a swastika for good measure. His release from prison is where the story lifts off, and over the course of the 2-hour running time, we witness his journey from the corporate yuppie, who in a drink driving situation caused the death of his best friend in a car accident, to the cold-blooded, racist murderer who earned the fear and respect of his fellow inmates.
Given that Waugh has directed the similarly-themed Felon, a little-seen 2008 drama with Stephen Dorff and Val Kilmer, and the underrated 2013 Dwayne Johnson vehicle Snitch, there’s a sense of authenticity to the violent proceedings and positional hierarchy that are displayed in the film, with Harlon seen as a sort of lamb amongst the wolves in his initial prison days. Managing to maintain audience sympathy despite his questionable choices, Coster-Waldau injects Harlon with a sense of both desperation and determination as he wiggles his way up the food chain, starting as a drug mule for gang leader Bottles (Jeffrey Donovan) before graduating to being entrusted with the murder of other inmates.
Violent chaos ensues as Harlon spirals further and further towards depravity behind bars, assuring him a life that could never resemble the one he had prior to his arrest; Lake Bell plays his suffering wife in a brief yet strong showing. As well cast as the film is, with the aforementioned Donovan and Bell impressing alongside Jon Bernthal as a fellow inmate, Omari Hardwick as Harlon’s parole officer, and Benjamin Brett as his sympathetic partner, Shot Caller belongs to Coster-Waldau, the actor never short of brilliant in a role that remains investing in spite of its flaws.
Thankfully never lingering on the gruesome prison sequences longer than necessary, Shot Caller may prove melodramatic in its ingredients but its unpredictable nature and organic intensity lend this familiar story a fresh coat.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Shot Caller is in limited release on 30th November, and available on demand from 6th December.