By Ben Travers | Indiewire March 16, 2014 at 4:01PM
Unreliable or untrustworthy narrators in documentaries aren't a new concept for the field, but in "Evolution of a Criminal," an emotionally compelling documentary executive produced by Spike Lee, the unique filmmaker puts the concept itself in question. Director Darius Monroe turns the camera on his past, examining his experience as a 16-year-old after robbing a bank with a couple of friends in a desperate attempt to help his family. Monroe, now 33, deeply regrets the decision and tries to make the audience understand how he came to make it without providing excuses for his devastating actions.
It's a difficult task, and it comes as no surprise to learn it took more than seven years for Darius to finish his film after many stops and starts during his tenure at the NYU film school. How he was able to attend NYU as well as many other questions assuredly filling your mind are almost all answered throughout the course of the moving documentary, but perhaps the most intriguing question posed by the young, thoughtful filmmaker is two-fold: Can we trust the narrator in "Evolution of a Criminal," and does the fact he's a criminal shade our decision to trust him?
The film begins with a slow roll out of witnesses. While focusing mostly on the Monroe family, including Darius himself, each subsequent subject is introduced on a need-to-know basis -- we may not meet a key player or two and hear his or her thoughts until the movie is almost over. But the filmmaker constantly returns to Darius' mother, Sigrid. She's married to Darius' stepdad Mike and remembers her son with such fondness and warmth that it's overwhelming. Darius shoots these interviews in blurry, less-than-hi-def video that -- while never distracting -- begs the question of motive. Even if it's a stylistic choice meant to convey the poverty surrounding Darius, it's mainly a distraction.
The story itself holds the power. Opening with his teen years and ending up in modern times, the 81-minute documentary covers exactly what it promises: the evolution of a good kid to an ex-con. We hear Darius' parents and friends describe his upbringing, including a stellar academic record, as well as his surroundings. Some of their stories are pure recollections of only the event described, but most of these tales are tinged with unfavorable foreshadowing.
This dreamlike effect is brought on by two savvy decisions made by Monroe as the director. First, he chooses to shoot certain scenes of his past, including the robbery, as reenactments, using actors to play out the scenes we need to see and not just hear. Many of them are played out in slow motion, an effect that doesn't glamorize the violence as much as one might expect. It forces the audience to experience the now-unconscionable actions Darius and his friends acted out in real life. At the post-screening Q&A session during the film's SXSW world premiere, Darius said that he was "was very much against reenactments for six years. [But] then all of us realized while watching the film, I as a viewer wanted to experience what I was talking about...I didn't want it to feel like I was glorifying this experience."
The film's structure also helped keep the scenes in question from becoming too overwrought. The voices of his family play such an integral role in the success of his film. At one point, Darius asks his mother why she didn't call the police on her son. Sigrid, in tears, is briefly taken aback before saying simply, "On you?" The scene is then abruptly cut off as it moves on to the next interview. While keeping the pace lively, the cut also achieves Darius' desired effect on the audience -- to feel his mother's anguish between choosing to do the right thing and exposing her son to punishment of the worst kind.
It's moments like these that make you wonder whether the film falls on the side of carefully executed or exploitative. How can a person distance himself so much from his own uncomfortable past to make decision after decision exacerbating the emotional toll of his actions? Is he tricking us like he fooled so many teachers, parents, and friends into thinking that he would never be able to commit a crime of such magnitude? Witness after witness comes forth saying they would never have believe Darius capable of doing what he did. One woman even said she would have bet her life on it. The tone can sometimes sway toward the grandiose, including a few of the aforementioned slo-mo shots.
In the end, though, it's hard not to trust Darius, and admire his courage when returning to confront the people he wronged and apologize to them, all while remotely filming the encounter as the camera sits street-side in his car window. By the film's end, Darius asks people if they would have treated him differently had they known he was an ex-con when they first met. Most admit they would, some to a devastating degree. Executive producer Lee said during the post-screening Q&A his reaction was, "How the fuck did you get into NYU?"
"Evolution of a Criminal" strives to achieve a similar state of shock without being smug enough to ignore how criminals earn that label. While you can never be sure the tears you see in movies -- even documentaries -- are real, the drops falling from Darius' eyes after his movie's premiere were as real as it gets.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With Spike Lee's backing and largely positive reviews, "Evolution of a Criminal' could wind up with a solid theatrical distribution plan, although its main audience is likely to be found on TV.