How does a man show ultimate loyalty to his family? Shot Caller explores this question through the lens of a middle-class man thrust into the extreme violence of the racially charged American prison gang world.

Jacob, our protagonist, leads the perfect middle class existence in California: a beautiful wife, a young son, a high-flying job. When he kills his friend in a drunk driving accident, he is thrown into prison and must align himself with a white skinhead gang, loosely modeled after the real life Aryan Brotherhood.

The film follows a familiar path of tracking Jacob during his release, as we are treated to flashbacks of how he became the white pride tattooed gang member he is. Ten years have passed and now Jacob is out, and he’s on a mission to sell some guns that have been smuggled into the country by our old friends, the Mexicans.

Opposing him is our rather bland black probation officer/ultimate badass. His “goodness” is established by having him save a 14-year-old girl from a sex predator at the beginning. While Ed, a black cop, is meant to be the true hero of the film, he comes across as empty and flat. No character development is granted to him and instead he comes off as a tired trope, grimacing in the mirror as he chokes down pain meds, driven on by something we don’t know. Beyond being the “good guy,” he is wholly unsympathetic and exists merely as a prop for Jacob’s story.

Jacob is the complexity of the film. He’s seen in entirely the same clothing during his release, painting a picture of singular devotion and one-sidedness that is at odds with what we know. His transformation from middle-class man serving 16 months on a plea bargain to ten-year hardened Aryan Brotherhood member is that of survival. At all times, he is shown to make moral and ethical choices in the framework he is granted. His sentence is extended because he chooses to attack the black man (or “toad,” as the gang’s slang refers to them) who has the drop on the leader of the Mexican gang. In doing so, he earns a friendship, but under the eye of a camera, he’s thrown deeper into the prison world and further up the hierarchy of the white nationalist gang.

Perhaps the director sees Jacob’s story as somewhat Biblical, of that of penance for past sins. There are no overt religious overtones in the film, yet his name and that of the leader of the gang “The Beast” hint at some deeper evil to be confronted. As the plot reveals itself, Jacob once again makes a series of decisions that, on the one hand, have a simplicity the audience may feel mocked by, but on the other hold true to the character arc established for him. As he saves another white man from falling into the trap of criminal ganghood and jail, we approach the climax of his own return to prison.

Everything falls away; our supporting cast of noble black cop and his team make Jacob a last offer. He refuses and is brought out to face the Beast. The nature of his betrayal is revealed, and through his acceptance of personal suffering (in the form of rectal storage), Jacob exacts vengeance upon the man who threatened his family. Despite the divorce and his request for his son to abandon him, Jacob has taken full control of the gang simply so his family can be protected. Cut off and isolated from his family, he appears content with his fate once a final letter reaches him.

Shot Caller was a surprising film in a number of ways: in a day and age where racial division is often painted in black and white, this is a far greyer storyline. The reality of the prison, as Jacob is told, is that you are “either a warrior or victim”; the racial lines our prisons are defined by are necessary survival measures in an insane place. As he and the audience come to realize that, the film asks you what you would do if you were in his shoes. Even with our stereotypical black protagonist, the director spares us racial moralizing about the evils of white nationalism: their criminal evils are shown plainly, and through Jacob, we understand how to make an uneasy peace with our circumstances. No racial group in the jail is superior in moral standing, the blacks being shown to rape one of “their own” upon his arrival in prison.

Jacob ultimately makes the choice to become the Beast: “What we do in here is all that matters for them to survive” is what the yard boss of the Brotherhood tells Jacob. Ultimately, he is the archetype of father and husband, going so far beyond the call of duty to protect and care for them that he will become a man he is not even sure he could be. At no point are we treated to some simple dialogue or even monologue of his trouble at this decision. It is shown on the actor’s face, by his bloody-minded resolve, and by his actions. The director should be commended for this.

The cinematography veers from the sublime to the passé: some questionable shots creep in, yet the standout scenes of death and decision linger long in the mind. Far from a perfect film, Shot Caller is instead is a hidden gem of darkness, a film gifted to us in a hyper-political age that shows an ugly reality and how a good man can negotiate it. The message at its heart is that we can all become demons: why? Because of love.

Click here to watch Shot Caller.