Shot Caller is the latest in a long and frustratingly high number of decent films that get buried in suburban theaters because there either aren’t enough screens in the area or the distributor makes the call that the film has limited appeal. But somehow, this film, which stars “Game of Thones’” Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (while the HBO series in the midst of the show’s most popular season), was deemed not worthy of dropping on a single screen in downtown Chicago (and I’m guessing most other cities). Coster-Waldau plays a financier named Jacob who is involved in a DUI that causes the death of his best friend and is sentenced to a relatively short amount of time. Jacob is no shady character, but he’s smart and knows how to read a situation and resolve it, which works to his advantage when he figures out that he’s about to get messed with in prison.
He’s forced to align himself with white supremacists in jail, led by an inmate named Bottles (Jeffrey Donovan) and his right-hand Shotgun (Jon Bernthal), but when he’s forced to kill in self defense, his sentence is increased considerably and he tells his devoted wife (Lake Bell) to forget him because he knows by the time he gets out, he’ll be a different man that she won’t want anything to do with. Just before he’s released, Jacob (now nicknamed Money) is told he’s going to be part of a major gun-running operation as payback for protection in prison. Naturally, they tell him if he doesn’t cooperate, they’ll take it out on his family, which also includes a teenage son at this point.
Director and former stuntman Ric Roman Waugh (Felon, Snitch) begins the film with Jacob’s release and moves back and forth between his life of happiness and leisure and his newfound criminal exploits in Southern California, working with some of his former jailhouse buddies and newcomers like Howie (Emory Cohen), who becomes something of a surrogate son to him. The deal places Jacob between two rival gangs, which forces him to call on his skills as a quick thinker and negotiator to keep from getting killed.
One of the reasons Shot Caller’s release platform is so frustrating is that the film is a genuinely solid piece of storytelling. I couldn’t swear to its box-office potential (I avoid such discussions like the plague), but people would go see it simply to watch Coster-Waldau try on a different skin—two actually, since we see him play extremely different version of the same man.—from what they see him do on “Game of Thrones,” and it might be his finest film work to date, on top of that. While prison movies and films about criminals are hardly unique, the combination of the two in this way, showing the connection and how one never really leaves prison behind, in an interesting and surprisingly emotional journey for Jacob.
Shot Caller is a title you’ll have to seek out if you want to see it on the big screen. I’m not saying the film is worth driving 30 miles out to the southwest burbs to watch, but I certainly enjoyed the different way of telling a tale this dark and violent, while still keeping things grounded in family. It is also noteworthy to mention that you can watch it at home by renting it digitally on major streaming platforms. One way or another, check this one out.
The film opens exclusively in Chicago area at the AMC Loews Crestwood 18.