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New In Theaters – Review Of Mexican Cannibalism Drama “We Are What We Are”

imagesIt opens in limited theaters tomorrow, Friday, the 18th (check your local listings), courtesy of IFC Films; I saw it last year at the New York Film Festival, and wrote a review afterward. And since it’s opening for the general public tomorrow, I thought I’d repost my review of it, so here ya go…

It’s a cool premise, I thought, when I initially heard about We Are What We Are (Somos Lo Que Hay), and was even more anxious to see it, when its first trailer turned up online. A family of cannibals, in present-day Mexico city, is left lacking, wildly anxious, after the sudden death of its patriarch; the widow and her three teenage children are in a frenzy to continue a family tradition that involves the hunting and gathering of fresh human meat.

Not that I was expecting something gruesome, and salivating at the thought of it; I like a good blood and gore flick every now and then, but nothing I’d seen and read about this particular film led me to believe that it would fall under that category. It’s more of a slow-burning suspense drama – a visually accomplished feature film debut for Jorge Michel Grau that laconically narrates a story about survival, set in the seedier sections of Mexico’s largest, densest city.

There’s very little actual violence, and much of it happens off camera; but when it does, it’s unmistakable and undeniable.

Running at about 100 minutes, the first 60 or so minutes of it are captivating; quietly suspenseful, as one works to make sense of each development, anticipating the next. As I said in my preview review 2 days ago, an engaging buildup that promises a potentially bizarre (in a good way) family drama. And yes, I said “drama;” One would immediately expect something closer to a piece of Eli Roth masturbatory fiction, in being introduced to a film about a family of cannibals, and, as I already said, there is some of that in the film; but, really, this is a film about a family and its will to survive against tremendous odds.

Director Grau should have maintained his focus on the collection of emotional, unexpected series of events and circumstances introduced in that first hour – the death of the father, the unraveling of the mother, the revelation that the oldest son is gay and his struggle to assume the role now vacant thanks to the death of the father, the hinted-at sexual tension between the younger son and the precocious daughter, the group’s conflicting ideas on how they will now survive, and a bit more, as if all that’s not already enough.

Instead Grau seemingly gives up, or rather gives in to Hollywood conventions, by mixing in an unconvincing narrative about a police officer, disrespected by his peers, and his quest to silence his detractors by solving the unsolvable (identifying the cannibals). It feels tacked on, as if Grau wasn’t confident that the family drama would be enough to sustain the film and keep audiences engaged, or that doing so might hurt its release prospects, reducing its reach. But what the subplot does is cheapen the film. Some in the audience I saw it with laughed at certain derivative tail-end sequences that I doubt were meant to be comical.

Performances are convincing; riveting even; the fractured mother’s fast-decline, seemingly wrestling with uncertainties; the timid, sensitive (although cliched) gay eldest son’s ambivalence in succeeding his father as leader of the pack, and how he eventually finds the will and courage to overcome his fears and win the respect of the others; the mature young daughter, the heart of the family, and most rational, who understands her position in the hierarchy, even though she’d be the ideal leader; and lastly, the combative youngest son, fearless, and rambunctious, who’d probably love to succeed, but is automatically disqualified because of his age. The cast eats up the material (pun intended), and I believed their performances, even as the narrative dives.

I appreciate how Grau throws us right into the story, with little explanation of when and where exactly we are. There’s no explanation as to why this family that exists in a world not so unlike ours, are cannibals, or how long they’ve been as they are, although there are hints that they aren’t alone. There’s no scene or sequence of birth or transformation, as we’d see in vampire and zombie movies, for example. No one is bitten or infected in some other intravenous manner. The film begins, and we’re asked to just accept that these people are who they are (as the title suggests), and your willingness to tolerate this will influence your appreciation for the film.

There’s also frequent mention of some kind of time-sensitive ritualistic rite of passage – a passing of the baton from father to oldest son, I presumed – that involves human sacrifice, but, unless I just missed it entirely, we’re never really given an explanation of what exactly this ritual is, and why it’s crucial that it must be performed so urgently. However, I wasn’t entirely distracted by this lack of awareness. I accepted it.

In closing, there was certainly more than enough dramatic meat to feed this monster, and I wish Grau had explored the less obviously, easily seductive aspects of the overall narrative; instead, it’s all upstaged by second half, 3rd-rate police theater, and unfortunately so, because I was completely enthralled for much of the terse, well-acted, visually stark, searing first half buildup, hoping for a worthy pay-off. It was disappointing actually.

However, as I also said in my preview, I’ll take this disappointment over a lot of the studio films I’ve seen so far this year.

IFC Films picked the film up for stateside distribution; they’ll likely play up the blood and gore in marketing materials to draw audiences to theaters, but you’ve been warned to instead expect a slow-burning, character-driven narrative with very few splashes. If you go in expecting the former, you’d be disappointed. But despite my misgivings, I’d still recommend seeing it, if it comes your way.

Trailer below:

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