28 March 2012

Clarky's Review: We Are What We Are

We Are What We Are (or "Somos lo que hay" in it's native Mexican) is a film I knew very little about when purchasing it. It seemed to have the usual flurry of 4 or 5 star reviews (as every box set seems to have these days - even Hatchet!) but I thought it was worth a shot. Only afterwards did I realise that Ryan, my fellow ThoseMovieGuys cohort, had mentioned this to me before, and that it was meant to do for cannibals what Let The Right One In did for vampires. This is high praise indeed and I was dubious as to whether it could live up to it and my, now sky high, expectations.

So did it? In short, no (although what could) but there is more here than meets the eye and I can understand the comparison, to a certain extent. Much like LTROI the myth of vampires isn't front and centre, it's the relationships between the characters, and for the most part this film plays out like a Mike Leigh kitchen sink drama - albeit one in Mexico that features a family of cannibals! Cannibalism isn't the main concern here, although it is the major plot device and accounts for most if not all of the characters actions.

What's at the heart of this movie is the family, their dynamic and the fallout after the loss of their father figure. Who will step up to the plate and take control of the family and lead them through this troubled time. It's a universal issue, and something that almost all of us will have to face at some point or another, even if cannibalism is not!

So what's the issue? This takes a universal theme and apply's it to a horror background much like LTORI. The problem is that none of the characters here are that likeable. In LTROI Oskar is bullied at school and is an outsider, and whilst Eli may be a vampire this is something that was thrust upon her. Rather than kill for fun, she kills to survive.

Whilst there is no doubt that the children of this family have their issues, and you could even argue that they don't know any better and that they are killing to survive, its hard to have any sympathy for them. The oldest child is a bit of a wet blanket and you never really root for him, the sister is conniving and the younger brother is an imbecile and a brute. And don't get me started on the mother! And whilst you could argue that they too are killing to survive, it's not quite the same. This film is more grounded in reality and they clearly know and understand the repercussions of their actions.

But maybe that's not the point. Why should we sympathise with a family of cannibals? We shouldn't of course, but when they are the main focus of the film it is difficult to connect with them without some likeable moments. Another issue is that the other "stories" and plot strands are marginalised and are introduced without being given much thought thereafter. If we had followed the police investigation as well then maybe we would have had someone to root for, instead these characters are pushed to the sidelines and are almost used for comedic effect.

The film is also quite slow, especially to start, and whilst I hung in there (determined to enjoy it) I couldn't help but feel it slipping away from me. I'm not sure if this is a problem indicative of this film, or of the fact that after seeing so many horror films I am also preconditioned to expect the action to kick off pretty quickly. However, apart from the general feeling of unease that permeates every scene within the house, and a couple of flashes of gore (although most of that is off screen, which is actually worse as you are left with the sound effects and your imagination) you would be hard pushed to classify this as a horror movie. 

In fact the feeling of unease has to be applauded. Not that I enjoyed it, but it can be an incredibly difficult thing to create a mood, or feeling, on film yet, We Are What We Are had it in spades. Sure it was one of the most disgusting, insidious and unsettling moods doing the rounds, but it was incredibly effective. There are lots of hints at things that are unspoken and this simply adds to the feeling whilst also adding something extra to proceedings. I liked the fact that we don't have a full back story, it's almost as if the film starts off half way through the story and expects us to catch up or come to our own conclusions as to what has led this family here. Whilst this not only added enjoyment to the film for me personally, I feel it also saved the film from having to deliver on its promises. Which although frustrating, also probably saved the film.

As noted many times at HC before, a lot of horror films have a great premise that is undone in the last third of the film as filmmakers either don't have the courage of their convictions, or they feel like they have to explain themselves. Thankfully, this is not a problem here and instead of being disappointed as a viewer by having the meaning of the ritual explained and spoon fed to us, here we make up our own minds. This saves us the despair of being disappointed by a sub par explanation and also allows us to spend time postulating and coming up with our own more satisfying reasons. 

One thing that I did find interesting was that every single victim in the film arrived at their situation because of sexual relations. Whether it be a whore on the street corner, the taxi driver that takes the mother for a ride (pun intended) or the homosexual who comes home for a one night stand. All of them find themselves faced by a family of cannibals because of their sex lives. I couldn't help but think that for a film that seemed to focus on the grey areas in life, this was very black and white and almost harked back to earlier horrors that were satirised in Scream.

In many ways I think this film undersells itself as a gory horror film, although it is genuinely tense and unnerving at times, yet it under performs in comparison to Let the Right One In and is a bit slow to start. There are certainly some interesting ideas, some nice touches and it was well shot, but I couldn't help but feel that there is a great film hidden somewhere inside an ok one. Although I did love that ending.

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