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We Are Monster

Film Three Stars
I watched We Are Monster at the start of my first day at the Edinburgh International Film Festival 2014, and it set the day off to a dark and troubled start. Not because the film was bad, but because of the subject matter and the way the story is told. When people say a film is tough, they mean what they say.

The language, intent and ideals of the lead character are, at times, difficult to watch, the incompetence of the authority figures is depressing, and the fact that this is all based on a true story is truly shocking.

Plot.pngWeAreMonster.jpgWe Are Monster tells the story of Robert Stewart, a young offender who was placed in the same cell as Zahid Mubarek. Six weeks later Stewart murdered Mubarek. Stewart was a known racist and a violent offender before he even arrived at the prison, and Mubarek was a British Asian teenager jailed for stealing £6 worth of razor blades, and was five hours away from the end of his sentence.

TheFilm.pngWe Are Monster opens with some strong visuals which continue through the film. From the outset it shows there's a strong talent for extracting interesting images from the mundane, however in the beginning it does feel a little style over substance as the film drags its heels a little and the story progresses slowly. I certainly wanted the pace to pick up a little but retain the style, and the good news is that this does happen. When we begin to enter the mind of the film version of Robert Stewart, the character and his ravings keep our attention nailed to the screen.

The opening feels like a stage play, particularly the way the story and the actors utilise the space, and this feeling pops up a number of times in the film. This is by no means a bad thing and what it does is keep us concentrated on those characters and the story rather than anything else. It also adds a dramatic and more serious tone to the feeling of the film.

The main character is, perhaps surprisingly, that of the murderer Robert Stewart. You might be surprised by that choice because we have little to do with the young man who he murdered. We spend enough time with him to be told he's friendly, has a family, regrets his criminal decision and intends to clean up his act once he's free. There's not enough to connect with him, and since the film is about the injustices towards him and his family it does seem a little strange.

Yet this is also where the strength of the film lies for it doesn’t travel down the normal victim route and tries to look into the mind, and through the eyes of the killer. Perhaps trying to understand why.

The film begins with the viewing of the murder and then steps back to when Stewart first entered the prison and was assigned the cell. There’s no sympathy in the view of the character, and there really is little in the way of understanding other than to point the audience against the authorities and the father, and that’s where I found it the hardest to take.

Trying to connect with the character of Stewart was going to be hard to do, and the film doesn't even try. This has shocking results, not only for the way it portrays his views of the world and how he's dealing with what is going on in his mind, but for the dialogue and intent of delivery. We are inside the mind of a violent, and undoubtedly psychotic, racist. His language is shocking and the venom portrayed by the character isn't sanitised.

The dialogue is quite hateful and violent, and while I understood it for the character, it did become rather off-putting at times. In fact there are moments where I felt like it was going too far and in a way becomes a little like preaching, almost like propaganda. In the middle of the film I did wonder if we were heading off track. I forgot about why we were really here and was taken over by the character of Stewart, as is the film, and his ongoing ranting.

After the film I did think that perhaps the film could have benefited from either trying harder to understand how the character turned this way, or more so from looking away from the character towards the victim and even the authorities.

Understanding more about Mubarek and connecting with him in some way could have helped us to feel the emotional impact of his loss and of the injustices against him. More than that, understanding the failings within the institution itself could have had a more positive impact for the film.

Moments such as the missing records at the beginning were handled well enough, where we were given the barest of information but it was enough for us to realise the implications. However later on, when we get to scenes such as where the guards are reading Stewart’s letters, it felt far too lightly handled. If this really was how the warning signs were handled then it is not only incompetence but farcical, and the way it was portrayed made it appear as a comedy.

The guards all too easily dismiss every warning, even when it’s glaring them in the face, and there’s no real reasoning given other than they just couldn’t care. If this really was the case then it needed some more explanation, and if not, it needed toning down to make it believable. As it was these scenes just didn't feel real. These are very important moments and their weight shouldn't go by the audience. Unfortunately they do.

Another area where I felt the film was a little lacking was the reveal of Stewart’s inner character. Very quickly we're shown what his problem is and how he's dealing with it, as well as his intentions. I did think that the second character was going to "educate" and persuade Stewart to do what he did, something he himself says, but it seems that Stewart is already at that point and doesn’t need much turning. This leads to the speeches feeling similar and the same messages being reiterated to the audience, almost to the point of feeling like preaching or propaganda.

We see an analysis of how he is now, not of how he got there, and for me that's where the interest of the character lies. Even though we get some flashback moments, I didn't feel that it was telling me anything about why he did it or how his mind became this way. We hear about early events in his life and points that might have had an influence, but there are no real connections made or analysis carried out. Very quickly we see how he is now.

The flashback moments are cleverly handled though, again making you feel that this is more of a stage play, and that is a strong positive for these scenes, bringing the focus on the character and the performance.

No review of this film can go without mentioning the work of the leading actor, Leeshon Alexander. He plays both aspects of Stewart as two completely separate characters who interact with each other throughout the film. His two performances make the film what it is and he should gain a huge amount of praise and respect for his work.

His two characters are extremes of personality and he does a very convincing job, even if at times the darker character appears a little too much. Between characters he even appears to physically change his appearance, and not just through the use of costume, make-up and lighting. Even though the meeker character becomes more and more like the darker character, there's never a confusion of which we're watching on screen. Alexander gives a superb performance.

Overall.pngWe Are Monster is a strong film that feels like a stage play and comes with a similarly strong performance from the leading actor. Leeshon Alexander is the star of this film for many reasons, and not just because he plays the main character, or rather the two leading characters. His two performances are intensely interesting to watch and he plays them convincingly well. Although there are flashes of just being a little too over the line, his performance shows a fine talent that deserves more character based work.

The language and intent of the character are shocking, and can make for uncomfortable viewing, which is the point considering the true story the film represents. This is intended to shock and surprise, and it does.

Still, despite these strengths, I didn't really feel that it was telling me anything about why Stewart did what he did or paint a strong picture of the failings and faults that put him in the same cell with Mubarek. While I thought we might get to see the development of Stewart's character and how he came to feel the way he did, there's not a great deal of flow to his development. I felt that his character could have done with more building and analysis, as it was he quite early became the character we see at the end of the film and this meant that a fair amount of the character's dialogue to the screen and audience does feel like preaching.

The film is tough and uncompromising, and ultimately it does tell the story of what happened to Mubarek, but his character also suffers from a lack of understanding and backstory, and our connection with him could have been much better with some more time. The other area that suffered was the exposure and building up of the failings within the system that lead to this situation, they are presented too lightly and they don't have the impact that they should, something that is left to the final closing, true story, title wrap-up, and by then it’s too late.

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