Film: We Are What We Are ***
Release date: 21st March 2011
Running time: 90 mins
Director: Jorge Michel Grau
Starring: Francisco Barreiro, Alan Chávez, Paulina Gaitán, Carmen Beato, Jorge Zárate
Studio: Artificial Eye
We Are What We Are is Jorge Michel Grau's independently produced, genre-bending shocker, acclaimed as the Mexican Let The Right One In (2008). With big shoes to fill, has this grisly satire got the stomach to compete with one of the greatest horror films of recent times?
Dying in the middle of a shopping mall, a middle-aged man leaves his widow, two sons and daughter destitute. Not only will the devastated family have to cope with their terrible loss, but without a breadwinner in the house, they also face a massive challenge.
Not that bread will satisfy this family of cannibals, driven to eat human flesh in the Latin American urban jungle rife with poverty and corruption. Justifying their bizarre diet with ritual blood ceremonies is one thing, but now they must decide who will provide the victims now that father has gone.
The task falls to the eldest son Alfredo, yet he's far from ready to accept the challenge, carrying a secret that will rip a hole through his family, thus finally supplying the desperate police force with a recipe for success…
You know that you’re on to something good when you’re rooting for a bunch of flesh-eating cannibals. Either that or the other characters are so unpleasant you have little choice in the matter. Director Jorge Michel Grau has created such a bleak world filled with poverty and decay you are forgiven if at any point you hope this dysfunctional family finally manages to find some food for the table.
The youngest are certainly the victims here. Whereas the prostitutes and bent cops had, at some point, a choice in which direction to take, the three children had no such luck, raised into a family that already relied on human flesh as their only means of protein. Why the mother, played with such menace by Carmen Beato, decided to pursue her husband’s odd dietary requirements, especially as she despised whores, isn’t really explained, and it leaves a sour taste because for the most part she revels in being by far the strongest character.
This isn’t a unique family either, because throughout, cannibalism, although revered, is seemingly treated as a common occurrence, almost on a par with shoplifting. This is hardly surprising when you witness Grau’s Mexico City, rife with official incompetence and corruption. In a world where nobody trusts anyone, the cannibals are just another band of scum that need to be wiped out. It’s certainly an interesting angle, summed up superbly when the daughter tries to persuade her siblings to take a lady of the night, insisting they should, “Hunt down a whore. It’s not cheating - we’ll dress her in my clothes.”
It’s this battle that holds the most interest. Beato juggles her dual roles of monster and mother quite superbly, but it’s the loathing of her husband’s acquired taste that leads to the film’s standout scenes: her dispatching of a hooker, the special delivery that succeeds it, and her final comeuppance are easily the better of a sub-plot involving the seedy policeman and his quest for approval from his comrades. Having said that, Grau still manages to deliver a scene even camper than Alfredo’s out of place sexual meanderings when the streetwalkers chase his brother Julian down the street.
For the gore-hounds, there is surprisingly little on offer here. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although at times it wouldn’t hurt for a few more slashes of violence. Too much happens off screen, and although in certain cases it’s best to leave some horrors to the viewer’s imagination, here it would arguably add a little bit more clarity. Having said that, a brief scene that shows the teenage boys sexually toying with their victim, as any teenage cannibal would, comes as such an explicit surprise, you’ll be disappointed to find it cut short by their mother who halts proceedings the only way she knows how.
Suggesting rather than showing, We Are What We Are changes direction in the final act, and somehow comes to life as the ailing police force raid the family home. How they came upon the property so swiftly is a bit of a headache, but the ensuing shoot-out will wake most viewers from their quiet slumber of satisfaction, surprising some, upsetting others, with a finale that will divide opinion. It may be a lazy way to end proceedings, or it may be the inevitable outcome, but it’s certainly entertaining.
And here lies the problem. Whereas their father’s death, staggering through a shopping mall in the city, clutching his stomach before collapsing in front of semi-clad mannequins in a shop window is poetic, the police autopsy soon after introduces a character so pointlessly over the top it’s embarrassing. A sub-plot that revolves around their mother’s hatred for prostitutes is ruined by another about a dirty cop who wants to go out with a final bang, pulling the trigger to a finale that doesn’t quite sit right. A film that at times tastes of chalk rather than cheese, inhibited further by the lack of brutality on show, or in fact, a lack of anything that doesn’t even warrant debate, means that the final serving will probably leave the audience hungry.
If Grau had stuck to his guns, and concentrated on the far more interesting family relationships and the conflict generated, heightened by such a distressing series of events, We Are What We Are could’ve sat proudly beside Let The Right One In as one of the most beautiful horrors of the last decade. Instead, it’s memorable, but not a classic.