We Are What We Are's striking opening scene gives you an idea of what you're in for. An older man wanders the streets somewhere in downtown Mexico clearly out of sorts; he could be drunk or on the verge of having a stroke for all we know. The man comes upon a boutique, surveying mannequins in the display window from the street outside with longing as he coughs violently. Knowing this is some sort of horror film, we're primed for the obvious visual punchline—that the man will spew blood against the display window, essentially spraying gore in the viewers' faces. But filmmaker Jorge Michel Grau, making his debut, opts for a softer, less obvious, more disturbing shock. The man collapses to the street, coughs up just a little of the red stuff, and quietly expires. A few moments later, a few cleaning men matter-of-factly drag the corpse away.
We Are What We Are has been labeled gruesome and humorless, but the film is tactful with the inevitable gore, and at times quite funny; it's just that the humor is of the pitch-black gallows variety that relieves little of the escalating tension. Grau's plot isn't especially original, and variations of his metaphor (cannibalism as indictment of class resentment and warfare, and of the unrelenting poverty and desperation of the lower class) can be found in many notable or not-so-notable horror films from Romero's Dead series to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Soylent Green to Delicatessen, among many others. But the tone Grau manages here is uniquely impressive: Reminiscent of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, We Are What We Are achieves a heightened amorality that somehow avoids championing the disgusting nihilistic urge to cheer as innocent victims are wiped out.
It's soon revealed that the old man was the head of a family of cannibals, who are seized in a grip of panic following his death. The mother, Patricia (Carmen Beato), is instantly at loose ends, locking herself in her room, while the three children—Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro), Julián (Alan Chávez), and Sabina (Paulina Gaitan)—scheme about who should replace their father as procurer of the meat for their "ritual." Sabina backs Alfredo, rightfully understanding that Julián is a hothead who'll instantly undo what we assume to be their careful procedure. (Grau is clearly aware of the irony that Sabina, obviously the most capable and intelligent member of the family, is never even considered by anyone for the job, but I wish he played it up more.) So Alfredo sets out on his first hunt, first targeting children and then prostitutes as theoretically less difficult initiations into the adult world of head breadwinner.
The family dynamics are quickly, efficiently, believably drawn, allowing Grau room to immerse his audience in a story that, by default, has us somewhat perversely in league with characters who murder innocents in prolonged and merciless fashion. We grasp the family's aim, maybe even identify a little, because Grau convincingly grounds his story in universal poverty: You come to view their hunts with their urgency, as a do-or-die act of survival. This could be a cop-out to justify gory money shots, but Grau, in a move sadly increasingly unusual for the modern horror film, refuses to shortchange the victims' innocence or misery. In portraying a genre-based animal kingdom, We Are What We Are is considerably more convincing than last year's admittedly gripping Animal Kingdom.
Grau misses a few opportunities though, particularly a subtext that arises that Alfredo and Patricia are targeting victims who sexually intimidate or arouse them—a great idea that could've elevated We Are What We Are to a realm beyond a polished, promising first film. (As the genre demands, the film also turns into a fairly predictable, and murkily staged, bloodbath.) But Grau, even in these formulaic moments, never relieves the vivid anxiety of the first half; clearly a talent, he's managed a difficult feat: a disciplined socially conscious horror film that unsettles when it could have just as easily preached.
IMAGE / SOUND:
A nice, unshowy transfer of a film that depends on purposefully mundane visual textures. The predominant colors are the brownish yellows of the Mexican cityscapes during the day and the reds and blacks of the traffic lights and pockets of darkness that greet the streets at night, and these are all rendered crisply and clearly without cleaning up the image too much so as to compromise the evocative grit of the film. The sound is equally quietly appropriate and competent, doing particular justice to the disgusting sound editing of the murders. This disc isn't a show pony, but the transfer is thematically appropriate, which should be preferable anyway.
The making-of featurette is comprised of behind-the-scenes production footage that's curiously set to the song "Under the Milky Way." While anything stands as blessed relief from the traditionally pompous talking-heads promo piece, this featurette is still skippable. The only other extra is the trailer.
A competent barebones transfer of a horror film that deserves to win a wider audience among the Netflix crowd.