Riding in upon an impressive swell of industry hype, mainly garnered from screenings at this year’s Cannes and New York Film Festivals, comes Mexican horror We Are What We Are (2010) from first time director Jorge Michel Grau.
Grau is the latest film maker to emerge from Mexico City’s prestigious film school, the Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica (CCC), a veritable breeding ground for new cinematic talent. Expectations are understandably high, but can Grau follow in the footsteps of fellow Mexican directors Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón by gaining both national and international recognition?
We Are What We Are begins in cryptic fashion. A middle-aged man – prefixed in a zombiesque, trance-like state – dies alone on a Mexico City street, leaving his widow and three children destitute. The devastated, impoverished family is confronted not only with his loss but with how to continue surviving, as we are revealed their terrible secret – they are cannibals who have existed on a diet of human flesh consumed in bloody ritual ceremonies; their victims – mainly prostitutes and homeless children up to this point – provided by the father.
Now that he is gone, who will hunt? Who will lead them? Without human meat the family will die, and the task of making fresh kills falls to the eldest son, Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro), a teenage misfit who seems far from ready to accept the challenge. In addition, Alfredo is also charged with controlling his hot-heated younger brother Julián (Alan Chávez), menacing sister Sabina (Paulina Gaitán) and tyrannical mother (Carmen Beato). The question seems not to be whether he will be able to subjugate his flesh-hungry kin, but for just how long…
From the film’s inciting synopsis, all the right ingredients appear to be in place for Grau to construct a tense, socially engaged modern horror. Unfortunately, We Are What We Are inexplicably fails on nearly every level. Outside of the zombie apocalypse sub genre, the subject of cannibalism appears to have been somewhat overlooked by 21st century horror cinema. Grau’s initial premise of utilising cannibalism as an allegory for social poverty (the poor and impoverished literally devouring themselves) has promise, but the end result is one ultimately lacking any substantial form of didactic bite.
Unlike the roving hordes of flesh eating zombies that stalk George A. Romero’s …of the Dead cycle, the monstrous stars of Grau’s debut appear only willing to feast upon society’s outsiders, predominantly preying on sex-workers, orphaned children and the persecuted gay community. Importantly, each visceral, overly-stylised murder provides absolutely no sense of satirical purpose or moral implication. Whereas Romero’s undead punished humanity for its decadence, greed and intolerance, Grau’s band of cannibals devour only the “supposed” weak, with the director seemingly confused as to whether his protagonists are supposed to be the monsters, anti-heroes or victims of the piece.
All four of We Are What We Are’s central roles feel hugely underwritten, and it’s difficult to sustain any feelings of empathy with the film’s desperate figures. Potential sub plots disappear nearly as quickly as they are suggested, often giving way to pointless scenes of scowling, familial distrust/bizarre incestuous longing. In particular, Alfredo’s latent homosexuality is neither confirmed nor dismissed, and although well-crafted ambiguity within modern cinema deserves to be welcomed and applauded (such is its relative infrequency), in this case it appears to be a purely one-dimensional device to get victim A to chopping board B.
Having therefore failed as a meaningful satirical commentary on contemporary, suburban Mexican society, We Are What We Are also capitulates as a generic horror. When directly compared with horror cinema’s most infamous tale of cannibalism, Tobe Hopper’s seminal 70’s shocker The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), We Are What We Are’s lack of tension and menace truly becomes apparent.
Whereas Hooper’s effort famously featured very little blood and violence – instead relying on the audience’s imagination to put flesh and chainsaw/meat-hook together internally – Grau’s cannibal flick seems to revel in amateurish, stock-sounding effects of crunching bone and tearing tissue, mixed with a few sporadic seems on pointless gore, resulting in little or no sensual impact whatsoever.
With almost no redeeming features aside from technical competence (whether mere competence alone should be praised at all in the age of digital film is arguably more food for thought than that provided by Grau’s entire feature), We Are What We Are seems destined for a short lived, exploitatively marketed theatrical run before being consigned to a bargain basement/clearance sale near you. What could have been an intelligent rebirth for the cannibal genre, akin to Let the Right One In’s (2008) reworking of the vampire narrative, instead seems content simply to gorge, choke, and eventually suffocate on its own dullness and irrelevance.