Writer-director Jorge Michel Grau faces a steep challenge with We Are What We Are. As the maker of an existential drama centered on a morose family of Mexican cannibals, Grau must find some way to connect his audience to the material, to unearth the humanity behind a gruesome, depressing subject.
Let the Right One In and Let Me In, its American remake, established a template for this sort of enterprise, mixing the pangs of young love and the aching loneliness of the vampire’s everyday existence with the characteristic gore of a genre flick.
Yet, cannibals are less sympathetic than vampires, the pop culture ghouls-of-the-moment, whose survival depends on human blood. There’s something far less romantic about humans who devour other humans just because they’ve developed a taste for them instead of, oh, McDonald’s. Filmmakers have traditionally understood this: Aside from one Hannibal Lecter, it’d be hard to finger a movie cannibal of note.
So, for We Are What We Are to work it needs to successfully be about more than what it’s about, to tell the story of a cannibalistic family that allows us to look at them and think, “there but for the grace of God go we.” Grau makes overtures in that direction, depicting the ravishing impact caused by the opening scene death of dad – also the family food gatherer – on the rest of the clan. Brothers Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) and Julián (Alan Chávez) incessantly bicker and come to blows and mom Patricia (Carmen Beato) grows embittered and forlorn while sister Sabina (Paulina Gaitan) tries to keep the flock together.
Set in a rusty, decaying world of yellowed walls, cluttered rooms and dank streets, the picture reflects the family’s dysfunction and helplessness in its somber, miserable aesthetic. Essentially druggies addicted to human flesh, the unit frays when its collective taste becomes harder to fulfill. The all-consuming, often futile search for victims leads them to schoolchildren, prostitutes and gay bars, but even an eventual feeding does little to overcome the pervasive grimness.
These characters are defined, as the title says, by what (not who) they are – and that one-note, single-minded pursuit of the goal of human flesh, effectively the most resonant characteristic of each protagonist, mires the entire production in a sort of lifeless gloom. There’s no light or warmth, and none of the conceptual freshness found in some other films about families mired in diseased, quasi-incestuous surroundings, such as the recent Dogtooth. Put simply, Grau never offers a tangible way in, a meaningful reason for the audience to strive to probe below the grotesque surface.
In We Are What We Are, with an almost vérité-like approach, the filmmaker simply, straightforwardly propels you into the world of the cannibal. But, the picture fails those of us without the hunger for human arms, legs and thighs, who find ourselves hoping to understand and discover some way to connect with those who are cursed with it.
The Upside: The film is a well-crafted, convincing evocation of a miserable, hopeless lifestyle.
The Downside: The characters are so defined by their hunger for flesh, while the movie so openly emphasizes the grim nature of their lives, that the picture has limited entertainment value.
On the Side: The film played at the 2010 Cannes and New York film festivals, among others.