By Benjamin Mercer
We Are What We Are
Dir. Jorge Michael Grau, Mexico, IFC Films
We Are What We Are opens with an appropriately nauseating sequence underlining its thesis about the wide gulf separating the rich and the poor in contemporary Mexico City. A man, scruffy and stumbling, paws at an upscale storefront’s plate-glass window and the perfectly outfitted mannequins beyond it. An impatient clerk shoos him away. But the man stays put, apparently becoming more unhinged (a looking-into-the-sun shot aligns viewers briefly with his woozy point of view), eventually vomiting what looks like a thick black tar, falling to his knees, and finally gasping his last. His corpse is quickly whisked away, his vomit wiped up by a crack janitorial team, and shoppers resume strolling over the spot where he gave up the ghost, yammering away at a high volume about nothing in particular. It’s an unsettling, if not subtle, statement: a man swept under the rug, his dignity losing out to a society’s imperative of keeping up appearances.
Rather than extending this rather simplistic social critique, though, first-time writer-director Jorge Michael Grau takes a more specific approach, zeroing in on this one man’s family. Soon after this prologue, Grau shows one of the man’s sons tapping away at another window, and looking longingly out of it, contemplating his fundamental remove from the world. It’s all in the family, this sense of being shut out, of being unable to engage anywhere beyond the cramped home. We soon discover that this family has its own highly exclusive rituals. Before they learn of his death, hot-headed Julian (Alan Chavez) and the more even-tempered Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) reluctantly cover for their missing father at his flea-market watch-repair stall (their time is ticking…), while their mother, Patricia (Carmen Beato), tends to the house, complaining intermittently about her husband’s weakness for whores. When daughter Sabina (Paulina Gaitan) finally delivers the news about father—while the family is collected in the basement, echoing relentlessly with the ticking of clocks—Patricia has a meltdown, thrashing about and hurling objects; for their part, the kids appear dumbstruck. But what at first appears to be a grief episode is soon recast: Grau skillfully downshifts from domestic drama to full-blown horror, pushing beyond the initial self-conscious art-house grunge (shoe boxes of watch parts and leaky faucets) to detail a wryly literal instance of the poor feeding on the poor.
An autopsy turns up an entire nail-painted finger in the father’s stomach—he was not addicted to sleeping with whores, but rather to eating them. This recovered finger eventually puts the human-flesh-feeding family in the crosshairs of the police, here personified by lazy, bumbling officers who value their own interests over those of the greater good (“We’d even meet the president in his fight against crime!” says one, weighing the pros and cons of actually investigating the case), evoking caustic recent Korean films such as Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and Hong Jin-na’s The Chaser. (In one scene, the cops even wind up gunning down one of their own.) Grau never fleshes out the precise nature of the monstrous cannibal ritual these cops are working to stop, instead emphasizing the destructive path it has set in motion.
While Grau manages his genre gear change well, by filling in a few seemingly minor but ultimately crucial pieces of withheld information (such as the derivation of the father’s hooker addiction), he doesn’t seem to be in total control of We Are What We Are’s tone. This family’s entire way of life is at stake—they feed exclusively on human flesh, and with the death of their father they have lost their sole provider of food—and as a result the emotions of the main characters run very high. “We have to get something tomorrow,” says Sabine, a panicked directive that sends Julian and Alfredo out to stalk prey under overpasses and on subways; when they bring “something” home, sometimes mother gives it a whack on the head with a large shovel to make sure he or she is no longer squirming. It’s as if we’re asked to take the direness of the family’s situation seriously, and to consider without chortling the fact that each member of the younger generation has incurred a steep personal cost for continuing this cloistered and brutal way of life (Sabina appears to have pent-up feelings for Julian; Alfredo, we learn during a dance-floor make-out session, is gay, and ashamed of it partly because of his family’s casual, “faggot”-dropping intolerance; the source of Julian’s anger is more mysterious, but suggestive of some form of self-repression). At the same time we’re encouraged to find amusement in the clumsy extremes to which they go to tear into human flesh. Julian and Alfredo’s initial “run” for fresh meat is scored to a piece of madcap music; Grau frequently shies away from the most gruesome aspects of the family’s cannibalism, but often heightens the sound of ripped-open chest cavities and slack bodies hitting the ground to an almost laughable extreme. The black-comedy-of-police-ineptness subplot is a correlative of that opening scene, showing the grossly unfair status quo in Mexico City, but it also jars tonally, working on a more farcical register than the rest of the film’s subtly deliberate comedy.
Perhaps this emotionally piecemeal approach is meant to emphasize Mexico City as a place divided up, factionalized, of discrete interests constantly at odds with each other. On the fringes of the unjust society at large is this particular patriarchal clan of cannibals, a unit aware of the evil of its acts but nonetheless willing to go to any length to preserve its ancient way of life; the police and many practitioners of the world’s oldest profession soon come out in force against them, cutting their own destructive path through the city. But this film’s seeming delight in tantalizing the audience with suggestions of the grotesque cheapens its broader points about isolated communities at odds. We Are What We Are is an appealingly ambitious portrait of terrifying near-lawlessness, but Grau’s lack of tonal control suggests he doesn’t quite have a firm handle on his material, regardless of the chest-thumping assurance of the title.