By Eric Kohn | Indiewire February 16, 2011 at 4:02AM
The horror genre has been ruthlessly mined for metaphor, often at the expense of credibility. The tricky balance of the Mexican cannibal drama “We Are What We Are” ("Somos lo que hay") involves its pairing of a conventional family unit with ludicrously grotesque proclivities. At once chilling and patently absurd, writer-direct Jorge Michel Grau’s feature-length debut has the goriest signifier for underclass strife this side of George A. Romero’s “Land of the Dead,” but Grau smartly eschews satire for emotional legitimacy. Rather than a subversive treat, “We Are What We Are” aims for a darkly realistic note and finds it.
In its cryptic opening sequence, the middle-aged man of the house stumbles through a Mexican supermall, glares at his own ghastly reflection in a store window, then tumbles down dead in a pool of his own blood. The incident puts the rest of his family in crisis mode. A tight-knit group, they relied on his hunting instincts to provide the human meat for their corporeal needs. Grau sympathizes with their tragedy before providing its frightening context, showing their grief and confusion in the wake of their eldest member's passing. And then the talk of a new hunter to lead the pack causes further disarray. The killing continues as the next generation inherits its apparent responsibility. Survival, in this case, means the bloodshed must go on.
The newly deceased cannibal's legacy barrels down on his frightened children. Although neglectful of his bills and known to dally with prostitutes before bringing them home for dinner, he trained his children well enough for them to display a fierce allegiance to their twisted dietary needs. Irascible Julian (Alan Chavez) and the comparatively meeker Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) struggle to nab the right victims from the streets, while their scheming sister (Paulina Gaitan) eggs them on. Demonic mother Patricia (Carmen Beato) chides her children for lacking the skills to keep their tradition afloat, a critique that motivates the siblings to try harder with increasingly ghastly results. Their internal drama and the resulting murders imbue "We Are What We Are" with its potent metaphor, which could readily apply to the country's real problems fighting criminal acts of desperation. "It's shocking how many people eat each other in this city," says a jaded cop, observing the finger of a woman extracted from the elder cannibal's stomach during his autopsy.
Although not without a few necessarily visceral moments, "We Are What We Are" avoids being persistently gross. Compared to the pantheon of existing cannibal movies, it's neither overtly farcical (a la Bob Balaban's "Parents") or guiltlessly exploitative (in the unsettling tradition of "Cannibal Holocaust"). Instead, Grau lets the symbolic value of cannibalism stand without neglecting the believable drama at its core. The tragedy comes not solely from the family or its victims but Mexican society at large, as evidenced by the ineffective law enforcement on the cannibals' trail. A pair of bumbling cops hope to catch the perpetrators in order to "join the President" in a war against violence, but instead wind up in their own confused colleague's crosshairs.
Representing lower-class violence taken to an extreme, the cannibalism cannot be contained by police work. The movie's gradual build to a thrilling, appropriately bloody climax intensifies this disconnect. Grau's satisfyingly conclusive finale opens up to sequel treatment (and he has discussed a potential horror trilogy), but it transcends plot. When the title returns to the screen after the last shot, it functions as a morbid rallying call of a suppressed people chomping at the bit to stay alive.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? A hit at Cannes Directors' Fortnight, "We Are What We Are" also played nicely to genre fans at Fantastic Fest. With that crossover potential, it should do decent business on IFC Midnight's video-on-demand platform.
criticWIRE grade: A-