We Are What We Are
d. Jorge Michel Grau / 2010 / Mexico / 90 mins
We Are What We Are is billed on most of its promotional materials as a “cannibal gore-fest”. This leads me to believe that many who watch this film will be gravely disappointed. It is simply nothing of the sort. The horror genre has come a long way since the video nasties of the 80s yet little confidence is shown in either a film, nor an audience who thirsts for truly shocking, yet psychological horror. Almost worse is the quote found in The Times that states the film “does for cannibals what Let the Right One In did for vampires” as if the genre warrants some form of update or erroneously, artistic validation. Both of these quotes are misleading, the film does not succumb to graphic excess but neither does it share the same successes as it’s apparent cinematic comparison.
Perhaps what stands out most about the film is its depiction of class and consumerism in a typical Mexican city. Survival is the name of the game, and the principal theme that unites the film’s characters. When a patriarch dies, his eldest son reluctantly takes up the role of provider, or as the case may be here, hunter/gatherer. The film channels contemporary, domestic issues through this cannibal family and their search for their next meal. With mixed success, it asks you to emotionally connect with their plight. This is mostly achieved through the powerful performances of the three siblings played by Francisco Barreiro, Paulina Gaitán and Alan Chávez. Tragically mirroring the violence found within the conclusion of the film, Chávez himself was shot dead in a confrontation with local police shortly after making the film. A reminder perhaps to those who would censor or eschew depictions of violence in film, the essential need there is to openly discuss society’s more volatile nature.
It is the social-realism of the film that is employed to greatest effect. Horror has always been at its finest when it darkly distorts the world around us, and Grau takes the introverted social dynamic of a family and plays it out to gruesome effect. The film’s restrained cinematography remains consistant and grounded, framing the family and the world around them through bars, screens and glass. Few of the characters are allowed to communicate effectively and the film does a good job of emulating the fear and isolation of the wilderness in its own concrete jungle. There is obviously a primitive heart beating within the film, the film makes little to no effort to explain the characters ritualistic lifestyle in a contemporary age. Indeed, the film is at its strongest when it draws parallels between our more primal and extreme fears and desires and counterparts them with the turmoil of a modern family torn asunder.
The film is not without its flaws, the links between sexuality and cannibalism remain an interesting stylistic undercurrent but little more and the characters are allowed limited room to breath and truly develop in interesting ways. The final act falls under scrutiny as well, the film’s slow pace allows us to privately emote with the grotesque actions of the characters, whereas as the drama peaks, it comes dangerously close to descending into farce. The two main investigative characters are dismissed with so little incident, it may well have been more effective to leave them as faceless persecutors to re-enforce the audience’s loyalty and isolation to the cannibal family. The score itself is a success, but only in that its minimalistic use highlights the impressive and restrained use of silence that overshadows the films most striking scenes.
Many have highlighted the lack of explanation of the family’s curious compulsion as the film’s greatest flaw. I prefer to think that the film’s narrative comes from the characters’ situation and responses, not their reasoning. The film is least successful when we lose the emotive connection that parallels their struggles with our own (the lacklustre handling of Alfredo’s questioning of his sexuality is a case in point). The reasoning behind their cannibalism is immaterial. As the title itself suggests, we are what we are and the characters do as they must do. As the mother in an uncharacteristically knowing moment mentions, “we are monsters”. It is all the more remarkable and a testament to the genre of horror that they remain so emotionally engaging.