‘I Watched A Thing’ is an ongoing blog that highlights either a film or television series that I found to be exceptional. ‘A Thing’ is just vague enough that it gives me the freedom to write about either medium. Film and Television are also both technically ‘things’. Enjoy.

“We’ve got you rules and we’ve got the gangs rules, and theirs matter.”

There is no line of dialogue as chilling or perfectly encapsulating Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s dilemma in “Shot Caller,” the latest crime drama from writer and director Ric Roman Waugh. An extremely compelling commentary on institutionalism within the criminal justice system that also tells the story of a father and the sacrifices he is willing to make for the sake of his family. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Game of Thrones) stars as Jacob, a family man and financial manager who after drunkenly running a red light, and accidentally killing his best friend, finds himself pleading out to a felony charge for a lesser sentence. This led to Jacob finding himself in a medium security prison being housed, as his legal counsel so elegantly states, with the “big boys.” White collar prison this is not. Jacob is quickly given a crash course in prison 101; the most import factor being that the gangs are divided by the only thing that matters in their world: Race.
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As a means of survival, Jacob takes the path of indoctrination into the Aryan Brotherhood, a white supremacist gang that dons him the street name of Money. His transformation from Jacob to Money is eerie, watching this straight-laced family man go from a terrified deer in the headlights to someone who is okay with getting his hands dirty. Actually, less dirty and more soaked in blood. Money learns that the cost of survival is high, and will find himself doing the unimaginable to get back to his family in one piece.
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My only previous frame of reference for Nikolaj Coster-Waldau previous body of work is his rather one note performance in “Game of Thrones”, yet I would venture his role here will show him in a light most have never seen. His physical transformation into Money is apparent as he begins to don tattoos synonymous with white power (literally tattooing “White Pride” on his back) in addition to more subtle mannerisms such as the way he speaks and behaves outside of prison that show the true extent of this transformation. “Shot Caller” serves as proof that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau has significantly more range as an actor.

What shines most about “Shot Caller” is its superb pacing throughout. The plot periodically jumps between the present as Money, newly released from prison and ordered by the Aryans to complete a gun sale, and the past as Jacob, a family man undergoing his transformation into Money. Showing the root of Jacob’s downfall and his terrifying transformation into Money, this contrasting of identities and time periods is what elevates “Shot Caller” above other crime dramas. No time is wasted. It has a breakneck speed that persists and is as tense as any movie I have seen this year. Possibly more so thanks to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s performance. He’s aided by co-stars Jon Berthenal (Fury, The Walking Dead), Omar Hardwick (Power), and Jefferey Donovan (Burn Notice) to name a few, though none deliver a performance anything close to Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s.
While “Shot Caller” is a tale of one father going to extremes to survive and make it home to his family, it also serves as a commentary on the state of our criminal justice system. It’s not very subtle in its messaging; a character literally says, “once a dude is institutionalized anythings possible.”  The story suggests that prisons do a better job of institutionalizing criminals rather than rehabilitating them. I think the film presents a believable enough scenario that even those with the best intentions can become institutionalized and become someone they never thought possible. In this regard, the film does an adequate job getting its message across.

I found myself thinking about “Shot Caller” more than expected, and that’s a testament to the grounded believability of events that transpire. This is easily one of the best movies I have seen so far this year, and I would put it up there with other crime drama classics such as “American History X” and “Training Day”.

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