We Are What We Are Dir. Jorge Michel Grau

[IFC Films; 2010]

Styles: horror, melodrama
Others: Dogtooth

The title of Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau’s debut film We Are What We Are suggests a series of existential quandaries, the type you might find in the daily life of a family of cannibals living in squalor. How can these illicit desires be controlled in service of a larger community? How can you be friends with someone you secretly want to eat? A good horror movie takes what’s recognizably human and obfuscates it, slowly but surely. If we can believe it, we’ll feel it; in other words, the devil is in the details.

Yet Grau doesn’t seem to be interested in these issues, or is at least unwilling to explore them in any depth. He chooses to keep his characters non-specific, and his brash film suffers for it, always suggesting more than it shows. The goriest scene in the film comes first: after we watch a man spontaneously bleed to death in a shopping mall, desperately (and humorously) pointing to a scantily clad female mannequin before he keels over, we soon shift to a grimy, ramshackle household to see his wife repeatedly yelling, “Damn his addiction to whores!” Things just got serious, if unintentionally funny, but also unclear: how does all of this translate to sudden, anguished cannibal lust? If the father’s desire is what is tearing his wife, sons, and daughter apart, we never understand exactly how or why, other than that food is now an issue and that prostitutes are out of the question. The very idea of desire hangs over Grau’s narrative tastelessly and without dramatic weight, as these vague, bitchy, and brooding characters scramble around for survival. He may leave certain details for the audience to figure out, but it is the hysteria that sets the tone for this awkwardly paced film, replete with clumsy exposition and hatred of hookers that make it harder to take seriously.

Shot in dreary browns and blues with a tactless, derivative score of plucking violins, the film’s lack of strong conflict might have been forgivable if it truly delivered on its premise, creating suspense out of various forms of bloodletting. But these scenes too are disappointingly tame, bafflingly random, and clumsily depicted. The frenetic score punctures an early scene in which Alfredo and Julián (Francisco Barreiro and Alan Chávez) attempt to steal away a child playing on the street, but the camera remains still throughout the scuffle, creating an odd dissonance that manages to kill all suspense Grau might have wrought. In the rest of the film, grisly sounds of skin tearing open and the thud of blunt instruments speak for what isn’t seen, an impressive sound design that unfortunately fails to raise the stakes. Our view is sometimes obstructed by glass or plastic, but without that necessary tension, these shots make one wonder if Grau was suffering from budget problems or if he truly believes his half-baked tale is trying something new.

It should also be mentioned that the family repairs watches for a living, and that the first complaining customer we see gets the shit beaten out of him. A seemingly deaf bus driver also feels Julián’s wrath, and we’re left wondering whether this society has any legal system in place. To give credence to the film’s murky moral compass, a subplot of a few clueless cops on the case gives a lame indictment of authority. “You think they called you first? They called everyone before you,” a colleague tells them, but since they (nor we) see “everyone,” they continue to sit in their car, waiting for leads. It turns out that all they really want is a promotion, and as evidenced later by a throwaway scene, maybe some jailbait too. Like the rest of the movie, it’s vague and hardly compelling; these characters barely strive to be anyone else, so why should we care when the bodies start dropping like flies?

“You are alive,” reads a fortune that Alfredo receives on the subway, which is hardly convincing. But at two separate points in the film, two characters are framed in medium shot from the neck down, their heads unseen. Perhaps Grau is suggesting that we can never truly know what it would be like to be a cannibal. One wishes he’d give the viewer a little more to chew on, rather than merely ensuring you will never hear the word “whore” more times in a movie this year.

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