Their father has died from eating a sick whore, so the sons kidnap another one to honor him. “Please don’t hurt me. You both can fuck me,” she pleads, tied to a table. The boys forget their meal for a second and begin feeling her up. Then Mom storms in, angered, and whacks her with a pole. Few things are more irritating than movies that get their jollies off of abusing women, a preference We Are What We Are then emphasizes by showing the dead prostitute’s battered face.
Admittedly, there’s significance behind the violence in Jorge Michel Grau’s debut feature. An early scene shows a mortician holding a finger in formaldehyde and muttering, “It’s shocking how many people eat each other in this city.” Artists have used cannibalism as a metaphor for the ways a society exploits its less powerful members for centuries, in works ranging from A Modest Proposal to How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman. In this case, you’re being offered a commentary on how the Mexican middle class preys on both the poor and sexual minorities; witness the scene where a son brings home a gay potential victim, to which Mama says, “I’m not eating a fag.” As has been the case since at least Bram Stoker’s Dracula, cannibalism’s linked to sex. Furthermore, the film suggests, Mexico’s government is indifferent to these transgressions; see not just the corrupt policemen, but the way that the family is able to load its victims between their car’s backseat and trunk without anyone noticing. Lastly, an incest motif suggests (as incest motifs traditionally have) how this middle class is diseased from within.
The film’s main problem isn’t that it spins these standard horror-as-politics metaphors, though, but rather that it exploits real violence in order to advance them. An enormous amount of violence against women and gay men gets committed in real life (much of it unreported), and Grau’s film is so totally of a piece in its grim identification with the family members that we absorb the violence it’s depicting without comprehending that violence’s effects. By depicting fictional violence so flippantly, We Are What We Are dulls the viewer to the fact of the real thing.
Lest it seem like this review is condemning all horror films, it’s worth comparing Grau’s to an admitted influence, and a far more violent one: Trouble Every Day. Claire Denis’s 2001 film features people savagely raping and dismembering their victims, but the tone is generally quiet and subdued; victims’ screams shatter this silence, creating an incalculably disturbing effect and making it seem as though the bulk of the film is in flight from pain. Indeed, Trouble Every Day’s point of identification lies not with its vampire cannibals, but with spouses trying to calm them. Grau leaves you with the movie scenario of people who must be violent, reasons irrelevant; Denis, far more responsibly, leaves you in the position of someone deeply scarred by violence and wondering why it exists.
You could also say, though, that Frederick Wiseman’s 2001 documentary Domestic Violence is a horror movie, one that takes the opposite approach to Trouble Every Day’s; while Denis’s film pushes fictional violence to its unwatchable extreme, Domestic Violence consists mostly of real victims discussing their abuse. In very different ways, both films argue that the full horror of violence can’t be captured on screen. So forget the cheesy music, the hysterical pacing, and the lack of characterization; We Are What We Are is finally so bothersome because it shows violence in a token way. The best thing about the film is that it lets the whores seek revenge.