A monotonously grim journey around the mind of a homicidal young racist, the fact-based, low-budget British drama We Are Monster is chiefly of interest for announcing a raw new talent in the glowering shape of writer-star Leeshon Alexander. Seldom offscreen for the picture’s 88 minutes, the previously little-known Alexander chillingly incarnates the real-life Robert Stewart, a juvenile detention center prisoner who in 2000 murdered his cellmate Zahid Mubarek. Earnest and somber, if ultimately providing little in the way of genuine illumination, this debut outing for director Antony Petrou premieres in competition at Edinburgh but looks better suited to television outings than theatrical exposure. Nevertheless, Alexander appears to be a frontrunner for the venerable festival’s award for best performance in a British film and a win there may lead to further festival bookings.
The most recent U.K. variant on penal themes, David Mackenzie‘s Starred Up, successfully raised its young lead Jack O’Connell a step further toward international renown. We Are Monster isn’t in that kind of league in terms of tension, flair or narrative propulsion, and is much more of a low-key chamber piece which could easily be transferred to a theatrical setting. This would involve some degree of ingenuity casting-wise, however, as most of Stewart’s dialogue consists of conversations with himself — specifically, a sardonic, viciously goading alter ego representing the warped, psychotically prejudiced side of his personality, given to extended, foul-mouthed diatribes studded with crude white-supremacist invective. (The two “Stewarts” address each other using the first-person plural, hence the film’s grammatically incorrect title.)
By opening with Mubarek’s murder, Alexander and Petrou (who previously directed the actor in 2012’s little-seen, 40-minute Senet) ensure that the film proceeds under a shadow of inescapable horror, one made all the more sickening by the reluctance or inability of the authorities to recognize the dangers of placing Stewart and Mubarek in the same cell. “I’m sure they’ll become fast friends in no time,” one of the center’s officers remarks early on. “Should be a bit of a laugh, eh?” grins his colleague, in one example of the screenplay’s tendency toward somewhat heavy-handed irony. But the derelictions of duty in what a subsequent official report — quoted in the end titles — described as “a bewildering catalogue of shortcomings” are all too plausible in a film which does for England’s juvenile detention system what Steve McQueen‘s Hunger did for the Northern Irish prison service.
In McQueen’s film, of course, the heard-but-not-seen presence of Margaret Thatcher was the unambiguous villain of the piece. Here, with Stewart’s severe mental disorders apparent from the start, the blame is more diffuse and ambiguous. The chief sufferer, of course, is Mubarek, played by Aymen Hamdouchi as a happy-go-lucky, smiling sacrificial lamb to the evils of institutional (and individual) racism. But the film isn’t much concerned with this character, we never even discover his first name until the closing credits, and some viewers may be uncomfortable with the picture’s stark emphasis on exploring Stewart’s motivations. It’s going too far to suggest that Petrou and Alexander seek to elicit sympathy for their particular “devil,” but the flashback glimpses of Stewart’s dysfunctional childhood, abused by a racist father, clearly aim to lay bare the twisted roots of his subsequent horrific aberrations.
The film is relentlessly and necessarily tough going, unleavened by humor or anything resembling optimism. Fred Portelli‘s score seldom misses the chance to underline the doomy ominousness of proceedings, while the miasmically unwholesome atmosphere is emphasized by Simon Richards‘ cinematography: the sickly glow of institutional lighting renders skin tones sallow and even the air itself seems redolent of stale tea bags*. But while the technical aspects seldom transcend budgetary limitations and his screenplay yields meager genuine insight, this is very much Alexander’s show. Despite moments of audition-piece excess, the young actor — who played a character of Asian origin on U.K. cop-drama The Bill — almost single-handedly keeps We Are Monster watchable, exuding a malign charisma that dominates the screen and compels our appalled fascination.
Production companies: Unstoppable Entertainment, Terra Rossa Films
Cast: Leeshon Alexander, Aymen Hamdouchi, Gethin Anthony, Justin Salinger, Shazad Latif
Director: Antony Petrou
Screenwriter: Leeshon Alexander
Producers: Leeshon Alexander, Antony Petrou, Noel Clarke, Jason Maza, Phil Dore, Dean O’Toole, Jean Pierre Magro
Executive producers: James Taylor, Roxanna Ramtin, Aaron Sawyer, John Smith
Cinematographer: Simon Richards
Production designer: Simon Rogers
Costume designer: Nadine Powell
Editor: James Norris
Composer: Fred Portelli
Sales: Unstoppable Entertainment, Los Angeles
No Rating, 88 minutes
* NB: this review is based on the DCP shown at the press & industry screening and at the first two public screenings. Future screenings of the film will reportedly feature a different color-emphasis and “a much warmer orange”.