Guess who’s coming for dinner
Mexican first-time director Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are/Somos lo que hay is another movie that pumps fresh energy and rich implication into a tired genre, this time the horror film, cannibal division. The Swedish Let the Right One In comes to mind because again the ghoulish protagonists are an impoverished family, struggling just to stay supplied with their daily nutrition, and the younger ones are lonely, alienated, and confused. This time cops are investigating and there’s a violent finale. It’s the surprising violence and the visual flair of continually murky greenish bluish images that makes this take on flesh-eating curiously pleasurable, and the convincing focus on desperation, corrupt surroundings, and a power struggle in the family adds food for thought.
In the opening sequences two youths lose their permission to run a sidewalk watch shop because one of them attacks customers. Meanwhile the pater familias (Humberto Yanez) whose sole source of income was fixing watches wanders like a zombie — or just a homeless man at the end of his rope — in a posh Mexico City shopping mall. After longingly grasping at girl mannequins behind a shop window, he vomits and drops dead on the sidewalk — and is swiftly swept away. An autopsy that reveals a human finger in his stomach leads a couple of low level cops to want to investigate, mainly in hopes of making money if this brings them notoriety. Meanwhile in the dingy cellar of the family’s slum projects home, wife and mother Patricia (Carmen Beato), her self-confident and beautiful daughter Sabina (Paulina Gaitán of Sin Nombre) and two young sons Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) and Julian (Alan Chávez) are frantic and argumentative. Dad, who they gradually realize is dead, has been the one who’s brought home the human flesh, which had to be consumed according to special ritual, presumably Satanic, whose importance Patricia must continually remind the kids of. Now one of the sons has to be the new leader. The sulky, dark Julian is a loose cannon given to bursts of sudden anger and cruelty. The buttoned-down Alfredo is recessive and conflicted. Sabina has more confidence and authority. But Patricia insists it’s Alfredo, as the elder son, who should take over, despite her gradually evident dislike of him.
And family dynamics are more complicated still. Alfredo turns out to be a closeted homosexual. Julian and Sabina have incestuous desires for each other. Patricia is long suffering: her husband spent all his time with whores. But didn’t he bring them home to dinner, as the entree? Now she seems more concerned that the streetwalkers stay away from her sons, and she creates a kind of class hostility by depositing the corpse of a whore in front of a bunch of her colleagues as a warning.
At first the boys repeatedly fail at efforts to bring home the bacon, first clumsily attacking a gang of homeless boys under a bridge. That attempt is a washout because Julian is too violent and Alfredo is too timid. Next they lure a prostitute. Then either in a gruesomely extreme expression of homosexual panic or else an act of very bad judgment, Alfredo spends an evening following a group of young gay men and brings the boy he’s most attracted to home from a disco — thus likely to wind up as dinner. Meanwhile several opposing teams of cops are closing in.
Sometimes Grau makes nice use of a withdrawn camera, as when cops, or the family, shut a door on the lens to have a private conversation, or a long shot, as when Julian is shown from a distance on the highway moving a victim from the back seat into the trunk, as people go by unconcerned. Alfredo’s sexual confusion adds a plaintive element. He can’t master either his sexuality or the role of family leader being thrust on him. Julian’s inner conflicts may be even greater, given his constant explosions.
The director’s references to Mexico’s poverty and moral corruption are clear without being overstated — though when a guy at the morgue says “You’d be surprised how much people eat each other in this city” the social message is pretty blunt. Mostly the family members, on the other hand, are circumspect. They don’t overtly say what their need is, though toward the end Patricia blurts out, “We’re monsters.”
The violence at the end is crazy, which is not a bad thing. However, this does not have the subtlety of the Swedish film’s wonderfully scary swimming pool revenge. And there are obvious lacunae in the whole conception. What exactly did the father do? How did he go about bringing home the family meal? What is the ritual and what’s the midnight rule? What was life in the family like, before things fell apart? It might help if one character were more positive and seen in more depth. However, other elements compensate. The cast is an interesting and potent combination of opposing elements: the harried Patricia; seething Julian; imploding Alfredo; serene, mysterious Sabina. Santiago Sanchez’s deliciously dark widescreen compositions and smooth tracking shots are excellent. He nicely alternates static shots with hand-held closeups. Enrico Chapel’s sparingly used, attractively screechy chamber music creates an original mood. Grau is also good at making the horror clear without actually showing much. His shrewd balance of understatement with clear enough references to classics of the genre means not only more sophisticated devotees but also mainstream audiences can find satisfaction in the film, just as with Let the Right One In. Jorge Michel Grau is another new Mexican director with a future.
Introduced at the 2010 Cannes Directors’ Fortnight series, We Are What We Are was seen and reviewed as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center and shown to the public Oct. 7 and 8, 2010. Also already included in five other festivals. In the US IFC has the distribution rights. UK release date Nov. 12.
DIRECTOR: JORGE MICHEL GRAU
WRITER:JORGE MICHEL GRAU
CAST: CARMEN BEATO, ADRIÁN AGUIRRE, FRANCISCO BARREIRO, ALAN CHÁVEZ, MIRIAM BALDERAS