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The tale of a disoriented cannibal family trying to survive in the lower depths of Mexico City, Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are is a darkly comic social allegory as well as an atmospheric little genre flick. This promising first feature is nearly as apt to use the power of suggestion as to ladle up the gore, triumphantly creepy, and just arty enough to have secured a slot in last year’s New York Film Festival.
Grau’s opening scene is good enough to anthologize. A wild-eyed, bearded, obviously sick middle-aged man staggers up out of the subway into an early-morning shopping street, stares hungrily at some bikini-clad shop-window mannequins, collapses on the sidewalk, vomits black bile, and dies. Passers-by are oblivious and the cleanup is all but instant; later, at the morgue, a medic discovers an undigested human finger in the corpse’s stomach. “You’d be amazed how many people eat people in this city,” he tells a cop.
The case of the missing finger is never solved; the rest of We Are What We Are concerns the dead man’s absence. Without him, his family-cum-cult—two 20-ish sons (one volatile, the other depressed), plus a sultry teenage daughter and a scary, haggard wife—are not sure how to feed themselves or continue what they call “the Ritual.” Dad, who paid the rent on their dank, dark basement by repairing watches, was also the one who brought home the (human) bacon, to be ceremonially butchered and sloppily devoured. Now his squabbling, resentful, mutually jealous, and increasingly ravenous survivors are left to their own dubious devices.
Who are these unspeakably sordid people holed up in a drab, working-class neighborhood (the same one where Grau, whose father owned a video store, grew up)? Are they los ricos, los pobres, capitalist exploiters, social parasites, an atavistic Aztec sect, metaphors for Mexico’s self-devouring drug wars? Don’t look for logic. They are who they are, and mainly: They hungry! As a narrative, We Are What We Are is all about the logistics of feeding the beast. What would Dad have done? How do you snatch a homeless kid or snare an unwary hooker? Is it possible to lure a lustful trick back home for dinner—especially when home is a horror pit of guttering candles, dripping blood, and eternally ticking clocks?
In addition to a comment on what Nick Schager, in his Voice interview with Grau last September, termed the “societal food chain,” We Are What We Are is also an accelerated telenovela. The family’s need for fresh meat is greatly complicated by their long-simmering interpersonal dynamics. Sibling rivalry runs rampant, fueled by maternal rejection, repressed homosexuality, and incestuous desire. Meanwhile, a clownish pair of cops—dreaming of tabloid glory and blissfully unaware that this case is way beyond their ken—furnish a bit of comic relief. Although We Are What We Are is far from sentimental, Grau’s focus on the family’s vulnerability serves to implicate the spectator in their struggle to survive.
So tasty a premise seems destined for a Hollywood remake. (Perhaps someone will merge it with Oscar-friendly family drama: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Mark Wahlberg playing the somewhat over-aged kids; Melissa Leo reprising her role as the mom from hell.) It will be difficult, however, to find an equivalent ambience. Once under way, We Are What We Are is a long journey through an urban miasma to the end of a dark and bloody night, a modernist score adding to the anxiety around the invariably messy kills. This is a movie in which mise-en-scène trumps the suspense.
Played out in shadowy streets, dilapidated overhead highways, grime-encrusted underpasses, and fetid clubs, We Are What We Are seems an organic product of Mexico City’s teeming sprawl. (There’s a hint of Buñuel’s Los Olvidados in its life-feeding-on-life Darwinian struggle.) The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls—or rather tonelessly chanted on a rattling train in a sequence providing the movie’s appropriately off-key lyrical interlude as well as its ambiguous motto: “You are alive.”