The piece below was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the art being covered in this piece wouldn't exist.
Jorge Michel Grau transforms the trappings of werewolf movies into something more poetic and provocative
Jorge Michel Grau’s cannibal family drama We Are What We Are brewed a quiet storm as it entered the 2010 festival circuit, with its low-key debut rippling into greater recognition as its reputation built (including an equally impressive remake in 2013 from Jim Mickle). Like that previous provocative slow-burn, Grau’s latest film Rage is a languidly paced yet deeply unsettling horror flick where the most horrifying creatures exist in the corners of the audience’s imagination.
After the death of his wife, drifter Alberto relocates himself and his thirteen-year-old son Alan to his deceased brother’s home in a distant Mexican gated community. The two barely have anything to their name but the brother’s meager possessions, mainly a ton of musical instruments, a wall covered in aluminum foil, and the mysterious contents of a locked armoire missing its key. Their poverty doesn’t stop the rest of the community from immediately hounding Alberto for three years of his brother’s unpaid debts. While Alberto disappears for days on end, locking Alan within their new home, Alan sneaks out to explore the desolate neighborhood, with vast rows of identical connected houses and wandering dogs. As Alan’s interactions with the neighbors reveal more about his father and uncle’s mysterious pasts, the violent deaths of neighborhood dogs foment an angry mob determined to drive Alberto and Alan out by any means necessary.
Playing into the opaque and suggestive drama of We Are What We Are, much of Rage is depicted in fleeting sequences where thematic depth is accumulated at a slow pace rather than laid bare for the audience. Alan’s young age doesn’t shield him from the brutality of others around him, but one senses an awkward attempt to do so from the adults in his life. Alberto is a harsh father, but one who immediately regrets his harsh discipline and the amount of secrecy that surrounds their current situation. Even the other neighbors interact with their family with a strained formality that belies their immediately hostile intentions; it’s a world where the line between man and beast is a fragile one that might as well not even exist.
This literal boundary pushes Rage from realist social drama into horror, as Alberto’s family is revealed to be seemingly cursed to be werewolves. The film’s creature elements are as understated as everything else in the film, if not more so–finding a cousin not just in Grau’s previous feature, but among films like Let the Right One In, Cat People, or Larry Fessenden films like Wendigo or Habit. Even though there’s plenty of blood to be spilled in Rage, Grau wisely never shows any creatures or transformations–restricting werewolf attacks to dramatic pulls of victims into the darkness, accompanied by some grisly sound design. The blend of these noises with the howls of stray dogs in the neighborhood also lends a crucial element of doubt and realism to these supernatural goings-on–are the members of Alberto’s family really werewolves, or is this some form of hereditary illness or compulsion?
Other elements of creature features find interesting modern pivots in Rage, most importantly the mob mentality that possesses the townspeople to rise up against the monster. The gated community transforms from a wasteland to a secretive in-group, determined to reject any outsiders or actual law and order in favor of superstition and vengeance, suggesting that such belief in otherworldly influence isn’t just limited to those who are suspected of transforming into beasts. It’s compelling commentary from Grau, and a welcome further exploration of genre elements that first began in We Are What We Are.
With a deliberate, dreamlike pace that allows for a realistic, modern exploration of its genre, Rage transforms our expectations of the werewolf film into something more mysterious and provocative.
Rage had its North American premiere at Fantastic Fest 2023. It is currently seeking U.S. Distribution.