Sunday, December 05, 2010

Film Review: We Are What We Are (2010)

In Mexico, an old man falls down in the street, black liquid spewing from his mouth, and dies. His family are understandably devastated by the news, not because he was their father, but because he was the key to their monthly ritual; he was the one who went out and kidnapped people so that his family could kill them and eat their flesh. Life's tough when you're a cannibal. His children set about trying to replace him, heading out into the night to find new victims, whilst a couple of cops begrudgingly try to figure out just why the old man died with a partially digested finger in his stomach. As the time for the ritual edges closer, the two groups are bound to collide, and it won't be pretty.
I saw this as the opening film of the Celluloid Screams Horror Festival and the curator described it as "Let The Right One In, but with someone getting lifted up with a meat hook by their face," and that's a pretty fair assessment of the film, though We Are What We Are lacks the haunting melancholy that made Let The Right One In one of my favourite films of the last few years. Jorge Michel Grau's film treats its sensationalist material very (sometimes overly) seriously, in doing so creating a really uneasy atmosphere as the family try to find victims whilst also trying to come to terms with the simmering resentments and feelings that have been bubbling underneath all their lives. The first two-thirds of the story of surprisingly bloodless, and are instead dedicated largely to establishing the complex lifelong conflicts that exist between the family members; the mother favours one son, the daughter favours another, and the two sons compete to decide who should be the new provider. It's an interesting character study which could easily frustrate people wanting a more violent and bloody film.

For this reason, We Are What We Are takes its time getting to the "horror" aspect of the story, instead building tension and emphasising the growing sense of frenzy that the family demonstrate as their deadline approaches, but laying the groundwork like that means that when the film's grand guignol final third kicks in, you feel invested in the family and the people trying to catch them, setting up a moral question at the end of the movie for the children ("what kind of life do you want to live?") and for the audience ("who do you want to see make it to the end of the film?")

It also means that there is at least one sad and poignant sequence in the film which, had the director chosen to go straight to the guts, would have been lost. Alfredo (Francsico Barreiro), who has reluctantly taken on the role of the leader and had his dedication and willingness to do what needs to be done insultingly questioned by his mother, heads out in search of a sacrifice. He spots a group of boys who he stalks until they go into a gay club. Once inside, one of the boys approaches Alfredo and dances with him. Eventually, they kiss, and Alfredo runs out of the club, fighting the conflicting feelings rising in him as he takes the train back home. It's a scene fraught with tension, uncertainty and an unabashedly sexual aura that encapsulates a lot of the themes and struggles that the characters face in the film. It's not surprising that this scene comes right before the film descends into its blood-soaked climax, then, since Grau has so thoroughly explored the ideas he wants to and can focus on the carnage.

It has some problems, most of which are from a narrative point of view. The two cops investigating the family often feel like a device included solely so that someone can enter the family's house at the end and set up some easy jump-scares, and the film doesn't really explain why the family do what they do, it just takes as read that they do it. Personally, I can overlook those flaws because the film as a whole is so enjoyable and interesting, but the film never resolves them in a particularly satisfying way.

It's not the best film about cannibals ever made (which is Ravenous, of course) but it's a really good horror film that also works on an emotional and character level.