Wednesday 10 November 2010

Pop will eat himself: "We Are What We Are"

The Romero-influenced We Are What We Are is a film about consumption, in more ways than one. Jorge Michel Glau's feature debut opens with a prologue tellingly set in a Mexico City shopping mall, where a bearded middle-aged man shambles into view, appearing to recognise his own reflection (and thus, we infer, who he really is) in a shop window, before collapsing, clutching his guts and vomiting blood. The truly disquieting pay-off to the scene sees the body spirited swiftly away, the blood mopped from sight, as though he were never there in the first place - for as the modern world, and the world of commerce in particular, likes to remind us, we are replaceable; if we don't want to do something or go somewhere - or if we, in turn, are no longer wanted - there's bound to be some other sucker who'll come along sooner or later. It transpires this man was father to a large-ish family: a wife and three teenage children, who each have their own needs. Grau is deliberate in withholding exactly what these needs are for an hour of the film, but all the talk of rites and hunting suggests they're unlikely to be entirely bloodless. It's not giving too much away to say that - with the mother withdrawing into grief, and her rowdy, hormonal offspring appearing unlikely to meet their sudden-found responsibilities - the family has been struck down by a curse: a particular inability to bring home the bacon.

Looked at purely from an economic perspective, We Are What We Are could be understood as a parable concerning a generation struggling to deal with the brutal demands of the marketplace. Irascible eldest son Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro) goes for the throat of one of his late father's customers when he happens to ask when the watch he's brought in for repairs will be ready, and - just as Guillermo del Toro's Cronos became a touch more Gothic by situating itself within an antiques shop - there's something thematically resonant in the way the family have made their living from repairing such timepieces, which tick and tock through the later stages of the film. For this lot, time is literally money - one means of measuring just how much (and how long) they have left.

The twist is predicated on the family's unusual, some might say insatiable, appetites: early on, we learn the mother (Carmen Beato) would berate her husband for expending too much energy on hookers, although the precise nature of these transactions will only become apparent when the couple's two boys, too, find themselves having to smuggle a streetwalker of their own into the back of a car. We notice how the family's victims are drawn from the underclasses: the film is very specific in delineating how, in the absence of moral authority (and Grau's police officers are sketched as singularly clueless and grasping: they're only in it for the money), the laws of the jungle have come to be applied. Minorities and the poor become easy(ish) pickings: there's one especially suspenseful sequence in a gay bar, where we wonder what exactly Alfredo is going to out himself as.

With the exception of Enrico Chapela's self-consciously baroque score, this is a restrained debut, most likely - in its conjunction of horror and social realism - to end up garnering the title of this year's Let the Right One In. If anything, Grau's film proves even more self-contained, holding back on the grue until the final, dog-eat-dog feeding frenzy, and limiting its movements to the family's grim retreat (easily the least welcoming abode since the farmhouse in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre) and a small handful of grimy backstreets. In doing so, We Are What We Are perhaps lacks the flair - the X (certificate) factor - that would guarantee a breakout success; unlike del Toro, who from the off displayed a marked facility with both, Grau proves more persuasive with ideas than images, and the film is visually rote accordingly. Nonetheless, it's a credible, quietly impressive vision of a society going to hell - not to mention a timely portrait of a family unit having to resort to desperate measures simply to survive.

We Are What We Are opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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