Film Review: We Are What We Are

Cannibal movie is well-cooked but hard to swallow.

We Are What We Are has already received glowing reviews for having a sociopolitical message within its Grand Guignol trappings, but apart from the above-average production values, Jorge Michel Grau’s film disappoints as entertainment. Viewers are likely to have mixed reactions.

In Grau’s story, the patriarch of a cannibalistic clan dies suddenly, forcing his family to select a new leader to find fresh victims. While the mother, Patricia (Carmen Beato), stays in secluded mourning, the three children carry on the job. The daughter, Sabina (Paulina Gaitan), anoints her brother, Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro), family leader; younger brother Julian (Alan Chavez) barely protests, but when Patricia finds out, she is furious, assuming Alfredo is incompetent.

Sure enough, Alfredo nearly bungles his first kidnapping of a prostitute he and his family will eventually kill and eat. Later, he has difficulty chasing after a gay man and, to complicate matters, becomes attracted to his new prey. When he gets the man home, Alfredo upsets Julian by revealing his own homosexuality. Escaping, the gay man contacts the police.

Grau’s liberal, humanistic statement emerges early on about Mexican poverty and how it forces unsavory choices upon otherwise good people. Not only is this lower-class family dependent upon a sickening criminal act, many young Mexican women find their way into dangerous streetwalking and even the police look for ways to gain fame or profit off their investigations. Grau asks: In a society so full of corruption and inequity, where the wealthy metaphorically “eat” the poor, is cannibalism all that bad or hard to fathom?

For a feature director new on the scene, Grau has crafted his film well, from its darkly lit cinematography and convincingly grubby interior design to its unobtrusive musical score and simple editing and special effects. (The ritual murder scenes are low-key and relatively discreet in their goriness, though maybe too low-key and discreet to please most horror fans.)

Where Grau fails badly is with his screenplay. The story of the family’s cannibal activity contains few interesting twists or turns once the basic situation is established. There are also several lingering questions. Why do we never see the cannibalism itself, only the killings? What is the significance of the often-referenced rituals surrounding the killings—especially since they don’t appear to be the same each time? Why is Alfredo made leader when mother and daughter are clearly tougher types? Many moments don’t ring true in the context of all the kitchen-sink realism.

Perhaps more ruinous is the film’s sheer lack of humor or suspense—surprising given the subject matter. The title might be a sly reference to the saying, “We are what we eat,” but otherwise, Grau shows little sense of fun, not even the dark kind of Buñuel-inspired wit one would expect.

We Are What We Are deserves credit for revealing social problems as the subtext of a horror pic, but its filmmakers have either forgotten or never knew that a deadly serious approach, coupled with weak writing, will severely limit the pleasures of any genre.