There’s a popular image of the American bank robber- a Bonnie and Clyde outlaw wronged by society, wearing a sky mask. A Robin Hood-figure escaping with bags of unmarked bills. We root for this bank robber in movies. We hope they get away, even though they rarely do. When we leave these films, we get away from a fantasy, and go back to our safe lives. But, what if there’s no going back? What if there’s no hero, no excitement, no exit, and only a deep pain that follows?
In Evolution of a Criminal, filmmaker and NYU-grad Darius Clark Monroe retraces the events, moments, and social dynamics that led him to rob a bank at the age of 16 with two other teenage friends, and the impact it had on his family and victims of the robbery. Raised in a close knit, Texas home, Monroe was made aware of his family’s increasing financial struggles and debt from an early age, causing a growing frustration in him.
This mounting frustration to economic poverty is often overlooked when the popular image of a “criminal” is presented. The mainstream media wants something and someone more controversial, someone they can paint as “bad,” as a stain on society. However, the youthful realization that you don’t belong to the middle class, that your mother is struggling, and your water will get cut off, can be deeply troubling, especially for a developing mind. In one scene, Monroe tells of his family home being robbed as a kid, and how the robbers left a large hole in their ceiling, stole their VCR’s and his stepfather’s paycheck. There’s a sense of great loss here because some of the film’s most candid footage is shot on VHS- like Monroe’s parents sharing a kiss that leaves lipstick on both of their lips. It’s almost is if the robbery happens on screen, because you feel a change and you see how this event indirectly influenced Monroe’s actions.
But for all of the retelling of events, Monroe doesn’t use this film to pity himself or explain why his actions were right. In fact, a lot of the film’s depth comes from a visibly tormented Monroe trying to piece together his actions and engage in an honest dialogue with those affected- his mother, family, and the people in the bank during the robbery, one of which, a pastor, sits down for a dimly-lit interview with Monroe. The perspective shift here is fascinating.
We live in a culture of glamorized violence, one that sees excitement in fictional despair, in police busting down doors on Cops, and high speed chases in action films. There are moments in this film that mirror pop culture; immediately after the robbery, Monroe’s accomplice takes a wad of cash and begins boasting of his fame to fellow students. And right before the robbery, Monroe makes an expert move to divert the cops' attention. We’ve seen these things in movies, but never in this way. Eventually tried as an adult under Texas law, Monroe finds his calling as a filmmaker in prison.
Adding to the narrative quality of the film is its photography by rising cinematographer Daniel Patterson. The documentary is incredibly cinematic, using well-acted reenactments, deep, saturated cinematography, and shallow depth of field to fully capture the fear, momentum, and emotion surrounding the robbery. I’ve always been weary of reenactments in documentaries because they can seem disjointed and separate from the film, but here they are deeply involving. It’s almost as if we’re watching a narrative fiction film alongside a documentary, creating an interesting blend of meaning. So, as the film unpacks the popular bank robber narrative, it uses some of the genre’s great technical conventions, creating a truly unique viewing experience. It is in these details that you glean Monroe’s voice as a filmmaker, and a look at his previous work in Slow becomes apparent.
In the end, the question is not so much “Why?” but “How?” How does a good student from a loving family evolve into a bank robber? There’s no easy answer, and Monroe’s documentary is anything but easy. It’s a textured look at environment, economic reality, and dreams blighted by a need to survive.
For additional SXSW screening times, visit http://schedule.sxsw.com/2014/events/event_FS14977