His protagonist is a man named Jacob, whom we meet in the slammer. He’s just about to be released on parole, and a letter to his son heard in voice-over offers some insight into his motives — but only partial clues, really. As played by Coster-Waldau, Jacob is a clenched-teeth cipher who says little and looks like Clint Eastwood might, if he slicked his grey hair back, got a few prison tats and grew out his mustache à la Hulk Hogan. No sooner is he back in the civilian world than his welcome-home party is disrupted by a drive-by shooting, which tells you a lot about what life on the outside will be like for him now.
We get to know through flashbacks that the protagonist, Jacob once led a completely different life, happily married with a son. But gets involved in a series of events that makes his more innocent days seem a million miles away. However, Waugh seems to be more interested in how a smart guy discovers and adapts to the complex politics of prison life. To survive, Jacob is forced to align himself with a group of neo-Nazi skinheads, doing favors on demand — finally earning their total confidence during a massive brawl between rival factions in the yard. Taking an active role in that battle, a whirlwind of handheld cameras and rapid stabbings, may have saved Jacob’s life, but it also adds years to his sentence, and at a certain point, he decides to erase himself from all that he knew before, much to his family’s consternation.
The movie traces his transformation(albeit in nonlinear fashion) to show ways in which people are molded by their circumstances and as such, build empathy for the protagonist. Eventually, we get to understand how much he sacrificed for his family’s safety. At the end of the day, maximum-security incarceration didn’t only fail to limit his power but ends up furthering his cause. The power structure is intense and further stifles by a realistic confusion between good and bad behavior. In a scene that may as well have been lifted from a David Ayer movie, a cop (Omari Hardwick) risks his own life raiding a trigger-happy suspect’s home, but he’s not above manipulating snitches to get his man, a paradox that doesn’t faze Benjamin Bratt’s fellow officer in the slightest. While Jon Bernthal’s heavily inked thug plays both sides, Jacob also keeps us guessing as to his allegiances, advising Afghanistan vet and amateur gun-runner Howie (Emory Cohen) to stay “clean,” even as he orchestrates an elaborate arms deal.
Oddly enough, considering Waugh’s background in stunts, the movie doesn’t indulge overly in the action scenes. Violence flares up quickly and is snuffed before you know it and yet, the same blood-chilling tension we might sense in watching a snake-charmer at work permeates nearly every scene.