Wednesday, October 6, 2010
NYFF 2010: We Are What We Are
The characters and motivations are often muddy, but the message is always clear in We Are What We Are, a broad-strokes horror movie with a pitch-black sense of humor. Writer-director Jorge Michel Grau wants us to think about how civilization and the rule of law are failing in late-capitalist society—specifically in Mexico City, which he paints as a place so full of corruption, callousness, and predatory behavior that even cannibalism barely raises an eyebrow.
The cannibals here are a family that consists only of three siblings and their mother after the sudden death of the husband and father, which gives the movie its strong opening: We see Dad first lurching, then crawling and spewing black bile in a busy shopping mall. People pass by without paying the slightest attention—until he's gone, at which point a cleaning crew promptly shows up to dispose of his remains. The mixed feelings the family experiences at his death (most of them grieve, but hotheaded Julián seems glad to be rid of the old man) are complicated by their sudden vulnerability, since Dad was in charge of bringing home the victims the family apparently subsisted on.
I say "apparently" because it's not clear whether Mom, Julián (Alan Chávez), soulful Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro), and eerily cool Sabina (Paulina Gaitán) live on human flesh or just indulge on special occasions. It's also unclear why they do it, though frequent references to rituals and rules suggest that they're practicing some kind of cult or occult religion. Broad strokes like these sometimes make Grau's story feel mythic, but more often they just feel clumsy, leaving out the detail and motivation that bring characters and relationships to life.
He does work in some nice little nuggets of black humor, like the positive-thinking message a beggar hands out on the subway that inspires Alfredo in a way she surely never imagined, or the cops who scoff when they're asked to look into the father's killings, saying they don't investigate cold cases—or any cases, for that matter.
But it sometimes feels as if Grau is reaching too much to make his point about the degeneration of society, between the incest blooming between Sabina and Julián, the dance club where a sweet young man unaware that he's been singled out as prey warns Alfredo against "wolves" who want to "eat you up," and the whores who act as a kind of Greek chorus, witnessing and judging the family's deeds.
The actors in the main roles are all very good, fleshing out their underwritten roles as well as anyone could, and the sickly green-gray tone of this literally dark film, with its Texas Chainsaw Massacre interiors and its long, deadpan shots, layer on the dread. It's resonantly creepy to watch the camera gaze at the family members as impassively as they stare at each other while they go about their gruesome business. But in the end, We Are What We Are feels too obviously, and sometimes awkwardly, stage-managed to lodge itself in that corner of the subconscious we reserve for cautionary horror stories.
Written for The House Next Door