Both a slow-burning study of a bereaved family’s internal tensions and a languid cannibal movie, Mexican filmmaker
Jorge Michel Grau’s uneven debut creates a tough challenge for audiences: it is too low-key for horror fans but too gory for arthouse patrons. The trailer and poster campaign (‘Young. Wild. Hungry.’) tries to position the film, which had its world premiere in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes in May, as this year’s crossover art/horror movie, claiming that it does for cannibals what ‘Let the Right One In’ did for vampires. Yet for all its promise, it fails fully to flesh out its gruesome premise, its shaky mythological underpinnings and oblique social commentary, and ultimately fizzles out into cop-thriller clichés.
A shabby, sick-looking middle-aged man stares at mannequins in a shop window, before dropping dead on the polished floor of a mall. His body is hurriedly removed, the blood is mopped up, his existence erased. Elsewhere, in a poor Mexico City neighbourhood, a family has lost its patriarch and is in danger of disintegrating. The man’s widow is eaten up with resentment, angry at her drunken, whoring husband’s irresponsible wasting of money. Her eldest son, Alfredo (Francisco Barreiro), is reluctant to take up his father’s mantle, but his hot-headed younger brother, Julian (Alan Chávez), has no such qualms. Human flesh must be found for the ancient, time-sensitive ritual that has been bequeathed to them, and the myriad clocks that fill their shambolic flat are ticking away the hours. Julian suggests abducting a prostitute or snatching a child from the street. Caught in the middle of the brothers’ power struggle, their sister Sabina (Paulina Gaitan) is forced to fill the maternal role vacated by their grieving mother.
While it concerns itself with the gruesome logistics of finding bodies to be ritually sacrificed and chopped into bite-size pieces, Grau’s hybrid film achieves a morbid fascination that is reinforced by Santiago Sanchez’s artfully scuzzy cinematography. The family’s emotional dynamics are complex and involving, but Alfredo’s nervous flirtation with his gay sexuality lacks conviction. More convincing and disturbing is the precocious Sabina’s manipulation of her brother Julian’s incestuous desire for her, which she uses to control his impetuous risk-taking. The origins and meaning of the arcane ritual remain fuzzy throughout, even during the climactic scene of dismemberment and feeding, which is evocatively staged as a silhouetted tableau, though accompanied by stomach-churning sounds of hacking and slicing. Neither is it clear whether the cannibalism is meant to be understood as a fantastical element in an otherwise naturalistic story or as a metaphor for the poverty of Mexico’s invisible underclass. The film falls apart during these final scenes, which intercut the visceral ritual with some tedious business about the cops closing in.