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Ric Roman Waugh’s Shot Caller is not just another generic prison drama. This crime thriller delves into the underworld, to give us a gritty prison epic on its own. Debuting on DirecTV two weeks before hitting theaters, “Shot Caller” dramatises life behind bars as a hardcore stint transforms an otherwise docile citizen into a ruthless crime boss. Danish actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a white-collar wheeler-dealer is convicted of a DUI manslaughter charge and tossed in with the violent convicts behind bars.
Interestingly, while the character’s arc proves more prolematic than what the description suggests, offering up instead a haunting psychological portrait of an intelligent man forced to evolve from naivete to crime before he gets to redeem himself from his previous sins. This is the third time that writer-director Waugh (following “Felon” and “Snitch”) has taken audiences into this well-researched intimidating underworld. Giving us an authentic world of crime, with its language, locations and the overall texture intact. Waugh does not only pass a commentary the irony of the “corrections facilities”, but dramatizes how this affects individuals, families and the society at large.

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.