Monday, 15 November 2010

Wider Reading | We Are What We Are

We Are What We Are does for cannibals what Let The Right One In did for vampires,” the posters proclaim. As I sneered to one of my co-editors,

“What, it’s an antidote to their status as a sex symbol amongst teenage girls?”

The wording of that review (from The Times, which should know better, Murdoched or not) is, at least, fumbling towards the parallel that both films, ostensibly horror pics, are slow-burning and artfully directed; more concerned with shots than shocks, and featuring introspective youngsters who like to finger windows while brooding. There’s also a bit where a girl in a hospital nightgown jumps off a roof and escapes.

What We Are What We Are actually did for me was to remind me, first of all, just how much Let The Right One In cheated to ensure that its protagonists retained our sympathies – Eli only murders the comic-relief drunkards and the bullies who are attempting to kill Oscar, while Oscar himself, for all his violent soliloquising, only ever thwacked a thoroughly deserving classmate athwart the earhole with a rod. Most of the actual killing is done by Eli’s thrall, and even he plays with our sense of ethics because his murder-scenes both so cleverly place their emphasis on the danger of him being caught.

They fight, and bite, bite and fight and bite...

We Are What We Are doesn’t have that much artful ambiguity (though it has vagueness to spare). It lacks a sympathetic, even familiar entry-point like Oscar. That was the second fact that We Are What We Are reminded me of; the prime importance of cheating in a narrative like this. It’s certainly very brave of the director to include a scene in which the film’s heroes attempt – and fail, bumbling pathetically – to attempt to abduct a homeless child, for the purposes of eating him. But whereas the auteurs of South Korean black-comedy cinema could have pulled that element off as horrific, funny and sad all at once, Jorge Michel Grau just can’t manage to earn his cannibal family our understanding, let alone our sympathy.

It doesn’t help that very little actually happens in the movie. I’m not saying I particularly wanted to see more eating of people, know...perhaps, as an audience member, I needed it to happen. I do think it says something when a film that takes place over a twelve-hour period can still seem baggy (and, a worse sin; how can a film about double-lives that begins in the afternoon and ends in the middle of the night do so little expressively with that timeframe? Haven’t they seen The Ladykillers?) So the cast spend much of their time glowering at one another and not saying a great deal.

The plot? Oh, right, the plot. The patriarch, and, presumably, chief hunter of a family of cannibals dies. His widow and children have a brief wobble about who’s going to go out and catch their next prey – the implication is that, wendigo-like, they fear they’ll get sick and die if they haven’t eaten by the end of the day. Meanwhile, they’re pursued by a couple of thinly-sketched cops, which does allow for a few not-bad cracks at the state of Mexico City; apparently a cannibal attack is a ‘number 14’ on the police radios there. The two sons go and hunt down a prostitute, and then a young man from a gay club, both of them experiencing in their own ways a frisson of sexual confusion that presumably arises from the similarities between eating someone and...eating someone. They do so with such incompetence that we suspect this can’t end well for them.

I’m going to go a couple of steps further into spoiler territory here, because I want to discuss something. The final shootout with the police, which is played semi-heroically, reminded me not at all of Let The Right One In, but of Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. What that movie failed to realise – and what a number of film critics failed to analyse more closely – was that it isn’t enough to dress your murderous psychopaths in Ned Kelly armour for a gunfight, or place their car, Thelma and Louise style, in front of an impregnable police roadblock, and think that you’re brilliantly and subversively making them heroic. No; you’re making a blatant visual association that may confuse some audience members into thinking they’re actually watching Thelma and Louise or Ned Kelly.

Brought to you by the man who ruined Hallowe'en.

Both The Devil’s Rejects and We Are What We Are (and incidentally, I don’t believe the film does anything whatsoever with that confrontational title) left me cold and a little alienated. It was as if their creators had both set out to solve the puzzle of how to film complete monsters for one-and-a-half hours and end up with the audience rooting for them, without figuring out the answer that a child could have told them; it’s all about character, and the tricks of character. Why does Hannibal Lecter flirt with heroism in The Silence of the Lambs, completely subverting our sense of ethics? I’d give four reasons;

1) He’s set up in the true role of the detective, providing exposition, flattering us with his insights – while Clarice, as Watson, runs about doing the legwork, Lecter occupies the mental realm; Holmes in his study.

2) From the very moment of Miggs’ death, we understand that Lecter is no threat towards Clarice, with whom our sympathies truly lie; in fact, we see him as her dark protector. Compare to Manhunter/Red Dragon, where the switch-bitch is Lecter betraying the detective seeking his help. There’s a reason Brian Cox never became heroic.

3) He’s placed in direct opposition to Dr Frederick Chilton, who is played essentially as the ‘douchebag boyfriend’ character; we are made to find him so personally disagreeable – and, again, against Clarice rather than for her – that we cannot help but root for his enemy.

4) He’s funny. Those who complain that Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter is a pantomime performance both directly hit and completely miss the point here. Being funny is nine-tenths of being a charismatic yet truly evil villain in cinema. Captain Hook is less likely to work as a tragically compelling baddie than as a funnyman. See also Hans Gruber, Anton Chigurh, The Joker, Freddy Kreuger...

We Are What We Are cannot provide us with any of these cheats, but neither can it find another route through its problem. So all we’re left with is unpleasant ciphers doing horrible things to thinly-sketched innocents and then getting their come-uppance. And honestly, I don’t think I can come up with a horror premise I want to run out of town on a rail any more than that one.

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