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April 29, 2015

Film + EntertainmentReview | by Francesco Cerniglia

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Based on the true story of the murder of Zahid Mubarek by his racist cellmate in the year 2000, We Are Monster focuses strongly on insanity and the attitudes of the prison system that led to the two men being paired together. Directed by Antony Petrou at his first feature-length film here, the film is a slow-burner with an impressive use of colour and cinematography working as a vehicle for the character study of murderer Robert Stewart. It’s a progressive, sticky slide down into the criminally racist mind of Robert that definitely could have benefitted from a shorter cut.

Leeshon Alexander plays Robert, spending the majority of the film talking to himself. The effect is unsettling when Robert’s racist tendencies take shape in an alter-ego also played by Leeshon. Robert casually talks with this projection of his mind about his abusive childhood and equally racist friend all while throwing around racist slurs like they were ordinary words. I was impressed by this Jekyll and Hyde performance, although it’s more Hyde and Hyde as Robert has no redeeming features. Leeshon’s portrayal reminded me of A Clockwork Orange (1971) in the way he addresses the audience and talks nonchalantly about his vile history; even when we take a look at his childhood as abused and abuser, the line between compassion and contempt is very thin.

Unfortunately the film moves far too slowly in some places, with lingering shots that might seem ‘artsy’ but add nothing, losing our interest before drawing our full attention again around the halfway mark. Petrou cleverly uses colour to mark changing settings: orange for the cells, green for the cafeteria and grey for the outside; he then builds on this by having Robert’s alter-ego wearing these colours so that he fades into the background throughout the film to emphasise he’s not really there. It slowly becomes apparent to the other cellmates and wardens that he isn’t all there.

Robert is sent to Feltham Young Offenders Institution, where his cellmate Zahid (Aymen Hamdouchi) is soon to be released in 6 weeks after a minor offence. The film is a gruelling journey through those 6 weeks leading up to the murder, adding a sense of morbidity and futility to Zahid’s time on screen especially when he commits himself to “getting his act together”. Elsewhere we see the prison wardens become more suspicious of their new inmate but are told to just file a report by their Chief Officer Dean (Justin Salinger) who argues “we’re not paid enough to care”.

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It’s a powerful story that raises questions about apathy and our willingness to intervene when there’s a chance of making a difference to safety and rehabilitation in our prison systems, offering up an insight into the mind-set of those who work there. The focus however is still Robert and his life leading up to the murder, his warped view of racial entitlement and the compelling voice in his head to become a ‘Monster’. An interesting, albeit slow-burning analysis focusing on where Robert’s criminal mind ends and his insanity starts, We Are Monster is certainly one to watch.

We Are Monster is released in UK cinemas on May 1st

Sunny Ramgolam