Taboos: 'We Are What We Are'

We Are What We Are wants to tweak the conventions of the typical thriller, to explore ideas and territories that usually ride as subplots or subtext.

We Are What We Are (Somos lo que hay)

Director: Jorge Michel Grau
Cast: Francisco Barreiro, Alan Chávez, Paulina Gaitán, Carmen Beato
Rated: NR
Studio: IFC Films
Year: 2010
US date: 2011-02-18 (Limited release)
UK date: 2010-11-12 (General release)

Cannibalism - the last great taboo. Sure, one can argue over incest, molestation, or any number of equally abhorrent relevant social stigmas, but for some reason, the eating of human flesh still draws some of the loudest cries of communal blasphemy. There is no etiquette strong enough to suggest its acceptability, and entire horror franchises have been built out of the notion of people (living and/or dead) snacking on their fellow man. So what does it say about the sensational Mexican genre effort We Are What We Are that cannibalism is the least concerning element among the population of a nameless urban ghetto. Whores are more hated, as are homosexuals. In fact, the police actually laugh off yet another case of the poor eating each other. Solving the death of a prostitute? That's far more important. That could lead to a promotion.

For Sabina, Alfredo, and Julian, the passing of their father couldn't come at a worse time. The "ritual" is upon them, and without his guidance and corporal input, the clan fears the oncoming 'shakes'. With their mother at wicked wit's end, the oldest, Alfredo, is put in charge. Along with his hot tempered brother, they head out to kidnap a local urchin. When that doesn't work, they beat and abduct a hooker. This makes their mother furious, since it was street walkers that were her husband's downfall and put a strain on her marriage. Eventually, the three teens take control. Alfredo cruises the local gay scene while his siblings suggest something more scandalous is going on. With the police more or less ambivalent to their various crimes - but very concerned about the losses in the red light district - the family must fulfill their meat-eating mandate, or suffer the ambiguous consequences.

There are no answers in Where Are What We Are, only inferences and implications. The ritual everyone complains about is never fully explained. Neither is the slum style homestead overloaded with boxes of salt (?) and broken down clocks. Sure, when we first meet Alfredo and Julian, they are taking over their fallen father's watch repair stall at the flea market and the seasoning might have something to do with packing and preserving their "prey", but the allusion to time, and the impending 'sacrifice', are only minor aspects of this otherwise spellbinding film. We Are What We Are wants to tweak the conventions of the typical thriller, to explore ideas and territories that usually ride as subplots or subtext. As a creepy coming of age, we watch as three youths struggle to find their place in the family freakshow. Julian just wants to kill while Sabina manipulates and manages. That just leave Alfredo, afraid of his domineering mother and more than a little intrigued by the gay man he pursues and picks up.

In this backwards world of disenfranchisement, hookers are a persecuted victims' pool and yet more respected than the homeless waifs gathered under the overpass. Morticians mock the discovery of a finger inside a corpse's belly, arguing for its financial value over its social relevance ("there always eating each other out there..."). The police are made up of several corrupt tiers, each trying to outmaneuver the others for promotion and profit. Even the death of the father by poisoning (another legitimate loose thread) is skimmed over, suggesting a great deal but offering little in response. But one of the great things that writer/director Jorge Michel Grau does is make all these unanswered questions work. They become elements of the atmosphere, of suspense and suspicion, drawing us in and keeping us engaged, even as the characters glowers at each other in endless resentment.

The acting is universally good, the young performers finding the right balance between sinister and savant. Even the mother manages to make her over the top rants feel realistic and organic. This is, after all, a world where there are no recognizable rules, where meat is murder and visa versa. During a crucial moment in the last act, Sabina struggles to vivisect a body. Unable to control her urges, she grabs the corpse's leg and begins munching like an animal. It's what we've expected the entire time, like the payoff when Leatherface finally revs up his power tools. But in We Are What We Are, there is an anticlimactic element to the feast, since it really isn't why we are investigating these people. There is more terror in mother's various illogical screeds than in a young girl chewing on a dead man's calf.

That's the magic of this movie, a fright flick that actually thrives on breaking convention. There is blood and gore here, but not in the amounts the premise suggest. There are also scenes of sexual discovery, again, not in the quantities that turns things into exploitation. While some might consider this the cinematic equivalent of pulling punches, Grau is actually onto something more unsettling. He understands that audiences are primed for a certain kind of shock value when they come to a film like this. By feeding that need and then taking away the scary movie sustenance, he's like the failed father figure, leaving the viewer shaken and starved for more. He then gives just enough to satisfy before slinking off, leaving many disquieting questions in his wake.

Yet again that's the beauty of We Are What We Are. It's a more glaring, grotesque portrait of modern Mexico than any documentary or well-meaning news report. What we learn is more shocking than what we see, though one does have to admit that most of the information is being skewed through a standard horror film milieu. Still, the portrait is there, painting in blots of crimson red and decaying gray. As the members of mall society swing past a dying peasant, as the shopping center staff step in to quickly dispense with (and clean up after) the bleeding body, we understand the entire "us vs. them" mentality at play. We Are What We Are is not just a new world order nightmare, it's a statement of intent. Acceptance is up to the audience, not those locked in the lost land of death and human food.






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