Last March, the intrepid crew behind The Barnes & Noble Review asked me to watch an extraordinary number of cannibal movies within a very short period of time. This exercise resulted in a rather pleasant throbbing in the head, a need for lengthy perambulation after all this sensory overload, a momentary recalibration of my carnivorous intake to ensure that I could sustain my passion for carne asada after seeing so many (virtual) people eaten, and this essay, in which I revealed that a cinematic genre of apparent last resort had more going for it than some of the humorless film snobs had suggested. One of the genre’s key touchstones, Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980), dared to balance bona-fide animal slaughter with the juicy theater of people having each other for dinner. And many of Deodato’s followers carried on in this bountiful spirit of authenticity, with film crews and fake books offering heft to all the baleful gustation. While mainstream cinema continues to remain comfortable with the removed feel of zombies, a decidedly more class-conscious approach to cannibalism in which one has to be bitten (a lack of personal responsibility? just one of the common rabble?) to give into these baser impulses, one wonders if we will see more knowing acts of cannibalism in multiplexes. Despite the fact that human beings are very often kind and noble, don’t we all have the capacity to be savage and vicious? And does not cannibalism offer us the most ideal narrative framework to oscillate between these two extremes? Is this not fun for the whole family?
Since money remains one of the dominant reasons that movies are made, the recent success of two Texas Chainsaw Massacre movies (a reboot that netted a $150 million worldwide gross) suggests this to be likely. But forget these crass men with the moneybags. Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are offers an unexpected alternative route for the cannibal movie’s future.
What’s quite interesting about this moody offering is that we see very few acts of chopping and cannibalism on screen. Some onyx bile regurgitated in the early minutes upon a shopping pavilion’s tile (and, with mordant wit, mopped up within minutes after the dead man is dragged away). A good deal of punching. (If you live among a family of cannibals and your dad has been dragging in a fresh body for a nightly ritual and you’re wondering when dad will kick the bucket so that you can be the paterfamilias, then it makes perfect sense that you would develop a few thuggish attempts at rabbit punches, testing them out on obnoxious guys who are trying to reclaim their broken watches.) Clumsy efforts to grab vagrant kids from beneath overpasses.
But cannibalism? Not until the very end.
I have to confess that I experienced some impatience in the film’s first hour, waiting eagerly for the dependable imagery of molars grinding human flesh and strings of meat being ripped from a flailing torso. The chops of the axe. The screams. All this reassures me! But I must greatly commend Grau for making me wait. It takes some serious guts to serve up a cannibal film prioritizing atmosphere over grindhouse. Grau is very good about balancing the frame, often pushing his subjects to the hard left or right (or occupying certain sectors in groups: see the above still) and leaving a dismaying blankness reflecting their empty future (and perhaps their empty bellies!). His interiors are often saturated with sickly shades of green, with a goopy Gordon Willis-like approach giving the movie a surprisingly dignified mien amidst all the dinginess.
The family business, as I intimated earlier, is the dying art of watchmaking. Dad, dead within the first few minutes, has been earning the bread by heading to a street vendor market and chomping on whores during his lunch hour. So there’s something of an Old World masculine vibe here. The film is often nebulous about how this strange system of providing for the family, of putting food on the table and so forth, works out. It’s implied that Dad has been providing fresh bodies, but are these bodies Dad’s whores? Mom seems to know about Dad’s whoring around, but she is strangely furious at her two boys for picking up the slack. The exact nature of the “ritual” is never entirely spelled out in the first hour. But when it is revealed, it’s somewhat of a predictable letdown.
Indeed, one frustrating aspect of Grau’s film is its behavioral incoherence. Grau has plenty of enticing visuals in his cinematic entrepot: a brother and a sister looking out the window, their entire forms beneath the drapes, as if protecting themselves from the unseen barbaric activities unfolding within; the ominous ticking of the clocks; the false sanctuary of a bathroom. But when it comes to synthesizing these visuals into character motivation, it often doesn’t pay off. Take, for example, a fifth-rate cop investigating a rash of disappearances and having some clue that will bring him to the family. This character is initially interesting in his drive for cash and his need to be famous, serving as a savage parallel in the “real” world to the “unreal” rituals in the family home. But when he is tempted too easily by an underage prostitute, these early impulses are flattened into your typical corrupt cop archetype. Or consider the sexual confusion of one of the sons when he ventures into a gay nightclub, initially distressed by some pickup grabbing him around the neck and making out with him. The son then attempts to corral his sexual ambiguity with his eating ambiguity, and his additional ambiguity over whether or not he has what it takes to take over as head of the family. Another fascinating parallel, right? Again, Grau throws this intrigue away by presenting this behavior, but not wishing to pursue its dimensions.
Of course, when one looks at the film’s title, this may be part of the point. Perhaps the audience is meant to reckon with bad behavior with only superficial context, thus stubbing out judgment before it can bury its barnacles into our being. But if you have the chops to present a subhuman impulse with visual nuance, why stop there? I’m definitely going to keep my eye out for Jorge Michel Grau’s work in the future. But I hope he has the courage to be more than what he thinks he is.