How do we understand violent acts and the motivations behind them? Is it enough to label someone as simply being a monster and that’s it for committing them? Are monsters simply born or moulded by the events and people around them? These are just some of the questions posed by We Are Monster, the bold albeit somewhat repetitious sophomore film by director Antony Petrou.
Based on a horrific true life tragedy, We Are Monster centres on Robert Stewart (played by Leeshon Alexander, who also wrote the script), a known violent racist who was sent to the Feltham Young Offenders Institute where he was assigned to the same cell as Zahid Mubarek, ultimately leading to his violent death at the hands of Robert.
The film focuses on Robert’s integration into prison society and mainly takes the form of him talking to himself in what can only be described as Sméagol/Gollum-like fashion, with his more animated and motivated “other half” spouting racist and abusive hatred to incite Robert to act out. This is both the film’s hook and its ultimate downfall. On the one hand it provides a bold and uncompromising way to grab the audience’s attention, an attempt to get inside the mind of this troubled and violent inmate by not beating around the bush.
At the same time this can and does make the film feel somewhat repetitive, both in how it keeps reverting to the back and forth monologue Robert is essentially having with himself, and how it beats you over the head with its messages. As the requisite info during the end credits – letting you know what ultimately became of the real story beyond what we see portrayed on-screen – states, the fault for Zahid’s death (something which is revealed in the first few minutes) may partly lie with the guards who did nothing to separate Robert from someone against whom he was clearly prejudiced. However, the film only lightly touches on this aspect with a couple of throwaway lines about how the senior guard tells his men not to worry about every little racial slur said by an inmate or being too tired to care. Exploring that in greater detail might have helped it present a more satisfying, better rounded look at the issue(s) than the more limited focus it presents.
The film, then, falls onto the shoulders of its writer and lead actor and Alexander is, thankfully, more than up to the task. His dual performance, split across two personalities – the domineering one controlling the compliant one – is powerful and scarily convincing even when the film lacks some crucial nuance. In a hackneyed and clunky attempt at back-story and motivation, we see Robert’s childhood literally projected onto his cell wall, in which his father beat him and his mother was apathetic, and it’s a testament to Alexander’s committed performance that he still sells it.
It’s the lack of subtlety and repetitive nature of the central split personality conceit that ultimately holds We Are Monster back from being the vital and important exploration of hatred and monstrous actions that it so clearly wants it to be. Nevertheless it’s an admirably audacious and ambitious effort made by a passionate director and writer that, at the very least, is a real conversation starter.