August 1, 2011

We Are What We Are

Reviewer: Craig Phillips
Rating (out of five): ***

Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau's undeniably creepy if tonally uneven We Are What We Are (Somos los que hay) is on the one hand a melancholy dysfunctional family tale, and on the other hand, well... they'd like to eat it.

After their father perishes in a heap on a city sidewalk, the two sons, Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) and Julian (Alan Chávez*), help their haggard mother (Carmen Beato) with the family finances as well as the family appetite, despite not being especially equipped for either role. The most important thing? Continuing the family "ritual" -- the unpleasant task the patriarch done for them for years. Meanwhile, two curious cops, after seeing the coroner find a finger in the man's stomach, decide to investigate further -- at their own risk.

We Are What We Are is not exactly the cannibal family Robinson here, it's melancholy but graphic, horror with elements of family melodrama. One twist is that the women, who certainly have their own issues, are hardier than the males -- more capable of "doing what is necessary" to keep the family going. There's also a bit of an incestuous connection with his sultry sister Sabina (Paulina Gaitán, star of Sin Nombre), who wants Julian to take charge, while the more timid older brother Alfredo is a closeted homosexual -- obvious to the family, despite his denial. The melancholic Barreiro's face seems always on the verge of tears or outburst.

As with Let the Right One In, which it at times reminded me of, the film has you empathizing with characters who are real, flesh and blood (in this case eaters of such) who just happen to be burdened with a horrific need. Rather than distance us from the cannibals, as many other horror films do, they feel like they could be us and it's all the more chilling because of it. We have met these monsters, and they could be among us. But while the family dynamic adds a layer of angst and realism, the film's social commentary (Mexican middle class consumerism vs. poverty) is a bit convoluted.

Clearly this is not a film for everyone. Slasher and torture porn fans may find it too slow of pace and too "real" to be appealing; arthouse patrons could be turned off by some of the more horrific scenes. But for the most part Grau keeps the most gruesome bits to our imagination -- except for the more violent final act -- and for those who are game, it's a unique, intelligent genre piece. It's also not an especially long film, certainly doesn't draw things out more than necessary.

It is well-shot (cinematography is by relative newcomer Santiago Sanchez), darkly lit with grungy tones the shades of flypaper and concrete, and it has oddly intriguing art direction -- their home includes a series of clocks on the wall, each showing different times and the morgue has an almost comical feel to it (as befitting the darkly funny dialogue -- Coroner: "It's shocking how many people eat each other inthis city."). 

The cops who sniff the trail of the family are meant to be a bit of bumbling comic relief, though they aren't especially funny. But their investigation does give the plot needed suspense as it goes along, as it otherwise threatens to devour itself. As it shifts into gear near the end there are macabre shades of Se7en.

While the elements didn't all jibe together for me, I wouldn't hesitate to dub Grau a filmmaker to watch.


*Note: I have since discovered the sad note that actor Alan Chávez, who plays Julian, was killed by gunfire in Mexico City after this film was completed. It's tragic and also a little ironic, given how the film does not depict that metropolis in the most flattering, or safest, of lights.

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Posted by maian at August 1, 2011 4:06 PM
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