We Are What We Are

A solid stab at sinister minimalism.

With the horror genre being perhaps the most conventional and lazily-engineered of the lot, it is nice to find some actually positive consistency within the genre; that consistency being that the very best horror offerings of the last several years – Inside, [REC], Martyrs and Let the Right One In – all have one thing in common; they are born of a foreign tongue. Whether it is that ambiguous, restrained European flavour that is refreshing to audiences nowadays, or simply that there aren’t any ridiculously-clothed, binge-drinking, nymph-like teens in sight in any of the above four films, We Are What We Are, a Mexican horror, is the latest to join their league; a lesser film than its ancestors, though still brooding and creepy, it is one worth the discerning horror fan checking out.

We Are What We Are begins with a man dying on the street, coughing and spluttering until he expires. His bedraggled appearance wouldn’t tell you, but he is married with three children, and as the sole breadwinner, he leaves a daunting task behind for his family; who will take his place as the patriarch, tasked with putting food on the table? Complicated further by the fact that this is a family of cannibals, they will have to choose their new leader carefully, for the slightest mistake in hunting will alert the already edgy authorities to their activities.

Compared most closely to Let the Right One In, Jorge Michel Grau’s film is rooted in the very same school of European minimalism despite, of course, not actually being European; it is slow, ponderous, socially conscious, and keen to invest in character and emotion rather than dabble in elaborate death scenes and freely flowing gore. While walking the tightrope decidedly less competently than the Swedish vamp classic – it is at times too restrained, resultantly draining the tension – this film has a biting (sorry) social agenda, keen to outline Mexico’s pressing poverty issues.

From that opening scene, in which the father dies, Grau realises his concerns on-screen visually and thematically; the brevity in which his body is removed from the streets and the mess washed away, while perhaps comical, remarks the apparently clinical manner with which the destitute lower classes are dealt with. In narrative terms, this commentary shifts to the remaining members of the family, and their disagreements over how they should continue to operate; while the children are willing to resort to kidnapping prostitutes and killing them, the mother, keen to stick to protocol and ritual tradition, abhors it, seeing it as an unacceptable concession, tantamount to living like an animal. It is this crux that defines the film, and begs the question; how low will an underclass go in order to survive?

While the mother character and the various police officers introduced sparely throughout are absolutely typical, the decidedly more interesting dynamic of the three siblings is what Grau lingers on; the boys (played by Francisco Barreiro and Alan Chavez, the latter of whom was sadly killed before the film was even released), both uneager to step up to responsibility, uneasily juggle the task of finding suitable “meals”, while their sister, Sabina (Paulina Gaitan, who impressed last year in Sin Nombre), at first sits easy, before having to try to pick up the pieces once things inevitably go south.

In tune with the dialled-down nature of the narrative, there are no grand emotional moments or didactic gestures, but small glimpses of humanity amid huge ones of people in crisis. Essentially a grim social tragedy with window-dressing, Grau finds in his three young stars palpable chemistry, and though the minimalist style does not eke out of them the most resonant arcs possible, the pathos, leading to an expectedly grim climax, is very unsettling. The misstep arrives, however, when Grau closes his film with a more conventional stinger of an ending, turning away from quiet creepiness and reaching for outlanishness, perhaps even campiness.

A fantastic premise is handled well but not flawlessly here; it will probably put casual audiences to sleep, and even better-trained viewers might find portions of it plodding, dull, and frustratingly gore-free, but its incisive social bent is thoroughly compelling, and its sheer strangeness keeps it disquieting and memorable pretty much right to the end.


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