Saturday 4 April 2020

On demand: "Shot Caller"

2017's Shot Caller was the film that got the up-and-coming Ric Roman Waugh the Angel Has Fallen gig: a tough, muscular thriller founded on a really solid piece of writing that forces us to constantly rethink where we are, and our relationship to its characters. You remember that misplaced cinephile affection that broke out a year or so ago around Gerard Butler's fundamentally mediocre Heat knock-off Den of Thieves? Yeah, it should have gone here. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau plays Jacob, a jailbird with a White Pride tattoo across his shoulder blades who emerges from prison with a mission that returns him to the very heart of L.A. gang life; as he sets about his task, we get flashbacks to his previous existence as a well-scrubbed stockbroker living happily with a wife (Lake Bell) and young son. Immediately, Waugh sets twin hares running: how Jacob passed from one state of being to another, and what his current mission has to do with his time on the inside. There is a third mystery you may find yourself pondering, which is why this script wasn't the subject of a major studio bidding war, instead of being brought to the screen by a long list of indies cobbling together their resources. The answer to that, of course, is that the studios haven't been interested in anything much above the PG-13 rating for some decades now; I suspect they'd also have struggled to find an A-lister willing to play the scene in which Jacob secretes a balloon full of drugs in his rear end, or to wear the awful Morgan Spurlock moustache Coster-Waldau is obliged to sport as White Pride Jacob, both in their own way signifiers of how the movie commits to the grimmer realities of prison life.

A studio-produced diversion like TV's Prison Break might sell us on the fantasy of a stone-cold innocent going his own way on the exercise yard, even as it kept having to find trapdoors and get-out clauses for him to escape through rather than get his hands dirty. What's sobering - even vaguely haunting - here is how easily once-upstanding citizen Jacob falls into a spiral from which there is no obvious way back. Crime affords him a parallel existence - he gains a young protégé (Emory Cohen) to replace the biological son from whom he's become estranged while behind bars - but even back on the outside, he's a marked man, pursued as much by his own demons as he is by those he's crossed. The project may not have ended up with the actors Waugh initially wanted, but the actors he got seize on these ambiguities with evident relish. For one thing, this is easily a career best for Coster-Waldau, who's been knocking around the fringes of Hollywood for two decades without landing on a role even half this chewy: a character who exists in (and has to transition between) multiple states, only a small number of which could be considered entirely sympathetic. (There's also good work in dispatches from Bell, Omari Hardwick as the parole officer tailing Jacob across L.A., and Mindhunter's Holt McCallany, all but unrecognisable as a white supremacist figurehead known as The Beast.) Waugh would have to sacrifice some of that dramatic heft and character development for his subsequent film - which was both a career move and a (not unenjoyable) cartoon - but this is a useful marker of what he's capable of, granted the opportunity and a cinema that makes movies for grown-ups.

Shot Caller is available to rent via Amazon Prime.

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