DVD Review: ‘We Are What We Are’

A bedraggled man’s gargling death in a Romero-esque shopping centre sets the stage for this exemplary Mexican horror-satire, the preternaturally assured debut of Jorge Michel Grau. No sooner has the man collapsed to the faux marble floor, than a maintenance team scamper into frame, dragging the body away and mopping the bile from the floor as the happy shoppers to drift by, oblivious. Though the man never reappears in the narrative, his presence lingers throughout We Are What We Are (2010), an absent husband and father to the central family; a family that, like any, harbour dark secrets and bizarre traditions.

Crassly marketed as a trashy ‘splatter’ film, its badly photoshopped poster promises a film that We Are What We Are gladly fails to deliver. It is a ploy that may have damaged rather than accentuated the film’s reception, positing itself in a way that may have alienated many who would appreciate the film’s style and abundant satirical content, as well as surely boring those seeking a conventional slasher. Like Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009), where We Are What We Are succeeds most commendably is in its depiction of a family on the fringes of society, their routines and dynamics a twisted mirror of our own. When a partially gnawed finger is discovered during autopsy, the leadership of the cannibal unit is bequeathed upon the eldest son Alfredo, a tradition enforced by their cheerless mother and beautiful sister, but hotly contested by feral younger brother Julian.

The film confidently takes its time establishing the inner-workings of the family, placing them firmly in a recognisable world of broadening economic divides; this is not a horror film, but a hyperbolised social document. Toying nicely with audience expectations, there is little on-screen bloodletting until the final act, which even then is coupled with excellent sound design to amass the full impact. The film’s main failing is in its persistent deviation from the central narrative to the ploddingly standard police investigation, which converges with the main thread in a wonderfully intense finale. Every time we leave the family’s attempts to find a worthy specimen for their domestic ritual, it’s as though a spell is momentarily broken, as though we have been granted a chance to swim to the surface and grab a fleeting breath, such is the film’s clammy hold.

The cat-and-mouse episodes in which the two broadly painted policemen follow clues and inspect evidence grounds the film too heavily within thriller convention, but are thankfully brief. What many critics have missed is the film’s dark humour, present even in its harshest moments – the bludgeoning of the bound and gagged prostitute by the boys’ disapproving mother has never failed to inspire evil cackles in audiences I have seen the film with and remains one of the films standout sequences. We Are What We Are is a stunningly photographed, intelligently conceived and bitingly satirical work from a tantalising new filmmaker. 
Robert Savage