Frightfest 2010: WE ARE WHAT WE ARE review
We Are What We Are is a film that tries to humanise seemingly ordinary people who do monstrous things, but it fails to do a good job of this for two main reasons; all of its subjects are neither likeable nor interesting with or without their monstrousness.
Jorge Michel Grau's film does some fantastic things with cinematography and audio to root us in the grimy underbelly of urban Mexico, but it gives us little to no reason to be emotionally invested in what happens to the people we meet there. Furthermore it goes horribly off the rails with some shockingly clumsy attempts at allegory and subtext that could well leave many viewers checking their watches long before the climax.
This is a crying shame, because it's a compelling, fairly original premise. A man keels over and dies in a shopping mall, his passing so unremarkable the cleaners are scrubbing the floor where he lay only moments after his body's been removed. But for his wife and children, the loss is a terrifying one - they're cannibals who depend on him to bring back the meat for the ritual ceremonies they use to hold the family together.
A successor has to be nominated, but though the daughter picks the older of her two brothers, he's hiding a secret that sees him struggle to take his father's place.
The trouble is, within a very short space of time it becomes painfully apparent that every member of the household is petty, venal, thuggish, and more besides. Not a one arouses any sympathy or even any interest as to what precisely their incompetence will bring about.
Worse, the director seems to think all this is perfectly interesting. Grau luxuriates in both their lack of humanity and their sheer banality. This elicits tedium more than anything else because he doesn't flesh either his characters or his setting out to the point of giving the family any context, and though he saves the real gore for the last act he focuses far too much on the moral depths each of the leads is ready to sink to.
The marketing blurb claims the family are driven to cannibalism through poverty, but any reference to this in the actual film is fleeting at best. There are some throwaway lines about desperate people eating each other as part of the cycle of life in the urban jungle, and the detectives on the family's trail mention political corruption and vice, but it's hardly an immersive portrait of the country's ills.
Grau has problems with tone, too. The police subplot suggests an attempt at black humour, with the officers the objects of mockery and running gags, but it seems an awkward fit with the seediness and violence endemic to the rest of the film and simply gives us two more characters to grow tired of.
Most awkward of all is the older brother's secret, where randomly guessing what it might be would see most viewers hit the right answer in a few seconds. It's a clumsy, even offensive parallel handled with all the subtlety of showing the audience flashcards explaining it, and arguably makes no sense given how events transpire even after it's revealed.
The acting varies wildly, Carmen Beato as the mother drifting into soap opera hysteria, both brothers frustratingly flat, their sister impressively menacing but all the more repellent for it.
Thus the final set piece should be several minutes of sustained, white knuckled tension, but it comes across as plodding, directionless boredom. We have no real idea how these monsters were made, no reason to think of them as anything more than monsters or any reason to watch them being monsters. The resolution is similarly uninvolving, rushed and vacant, and only succeeds in making the idea of a sequel seem like a threat.
We Are What We Are has been labelled the Mexican Let The Right One In, but that did an infinitely better job of making its lead seem like a decent person and a terrible, hideous thing at the same time. A more appropriate comparison would be something like Giorgos Lantimos' Dogtooth, another film that establishes a surreal, otherworldly fantasy setting in the real world but fails to supply the viewer with enough information to make sense of it.
But where Dogtooth had enough bizarre, free-wheeling lunacy, emotive power and dark wit behind it that even judged as a failure it was still a fascinating one, We Are What We Are simply starts by turning off the audience and only gets worse. A huge disappointment, it does virtually nothing memorable with its vast potential and cannot in all honesty be recommended.