When a middle-aged man drops dead in a shopping mall in urban Mexico, black blood exuding from his mouth, he leaves a terrible legacy. He has been the sole hunter for his wife and children who, like him, are cannibals. Jostling for position, they clumsily embark on the hunting for themselves. As we follow their exploits, Jorge Michel Grau’s debut feature is pulled in several directions; unearthly characters create subtle tensions that are cut through by caricatured cops and avenging prostitutes, Guillermo del Toro rubbing shoulders with Pedro Almodóvar. Some of the hunt scenes jolt along to a jazz soundtrack creating a West Side Story-ish fragmented hysteria, done so well in, say, Takashi Miike’s The Happiness of the Katakuris. Grau stitches together a Frankenstein’s monster of styles.
The family home is an artful, Gothic offering with dingy lighting and clutter that points to an obsession with time and repetition: a tin of strange ribbons incessantly counted by mother and hundreds of ticking clocks left by the departed horologist father. The uncanny continues with a soundscape that is full of intricacies that merge the everyday with the grotesque, such as the exaggerated sound of Mum’s (Carmen Beato) shoes clomping begrudgingly and curtly up the staircase. She is the one in the end who batters the human prey with matter-of-fact precision, and her deadpan performance evokes black comedy to add to the plethora of Grau’s styles.
The actual ‘rito’, the ritual dismembering, takes place on the family dining table surrounded by candlelit plastic crime-scene sheets: mother and daughter carve. The family are trapped in the cycle of performing these killings but it’s unclear whether this is fuelled by psychotic delusion or by a supernatural curse, where they will physically perish if they don’t eat human flesh. Their cult logic resurrects the Aztec obsession with carrying out protective sacrifice on a mass scale in order to ensure prosperity, and so Grau brings anxiety about literally putting ‘meat on the table’ into the here and now. Indeed the sacrificial victims are duped and lured in sites of poverty, trade and expenditure all elegantly picked out with lush cinematography and shallow depth of field; a traders market, a kerb-crawling zone, a flyover inhabited by vagrant children. The ‘dog eat dog world’ socio-economic metaphor here is heavy-handed.
Grau gets even more mileage out of the symbolic meaning of cannibalism as it also points to the psychic brutality families can inflict on each other. The exploration of these family dynamics is the strength of the film, take or leave the cannibalism. The father’s death is a catalyst for the eruption of drives that have been kept under wraps. As the family claim their victims their sexual orientations are revealed and these individual vignettes are sensitively played out, but teenage torment vies with the necessity of providing dinner for the family. The Bildungsroman elements of the film are the most moving and worthy of development and while the horror milieu is beautifully rendered, the social commentary comes with its own spoon.