By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Michael Patrick Nicholson, Chelsea Lopez, Michael Godere
Directed by Xander Robin
Written by Xander Robin
Produced by F
It’s a tale as old as time. Boy meets girl. Boy makes out with girl. Girl starts eating boy’s hair while her own falls out and he’s scratching leprous scabs on his back. Wait, what?
God, indie films can get so weird.
ARE WE NOT CATS follows Eli (Michael Patrick Nicholson) as he has the worst day in the existence of mankind: his girlfriend has sex with another guy and dumps him, his boss throws him off his garbage truck and out of a job, and his parents move and leave him homeless. He takes on a random job moving car parts from town to town to make money, and meets Kyle (Michael Godere), a bleach-drinking drifter who needs a ride back home. Instead of heading home, however, Kyle decides that Eli needs a bit of a pick me up after Eli samples some of Kyle’s favorite thing to drink and gets sick; and so the two of them head to a strange nightclub, where Eli meets Anya (Chelsea Lopez), an artist who shares a strange obsession with Eli. What follows involves singing landlords, hair tumors, modern day leprousy, lots and lots of wigs, and lots and lots and lots of hair pulling.
“The film makes a statement on the connection between art and self-immolation by way of the character’s dysfunctional relationship.”
ARE WE NOT CATS is an indie film through and through, for better and for worse. In the film, the world seems ripped right out of a Charles Baudelaire poem, heaps of garbage clogging every street and with the characters living in colorless hovels caked in dirt and rust, crawling with all manner of vermin. Our main character Eli gets more hard knocks than Arthur Fleck, losing everything he has in less than an hour and finding himself completely directionless. In his wandering state, his inhibitions dramatically lower, and Eli finds himself testing the bounds of what he can accomplish, more free to pursue his most destructive impulses; this is most poignantly conveyed (you know, before the hair eating) by his drinking bleach with Kyle, who when Eli asks him “hey man, do people do that?” responds with “what, are you saying I’m not a person?” Progressing forward, in this film, means descending, and this descent is conflated with artistic design; Anya is a free spirit, creative and completely given to following her impulses. As a result, when we meet her, she has already consumed most of her hair and suffers dire consequences. The film seems to be asking what we risk (and what we gain) when we feel free to pursue the truest form of ourselves. Though, being a horror film at heart, ARE WE NOT CATS is much more concerned with the consequences of this kind of self-serving hedonistic abandonment. A debate could be had over whether the relationship at the center of the film is one of two oddballs finding each other at the perfect moment, or one of codependence that drags both of them down. I lean towards the latter, but it’s up to you to decide.
This film is beautifully shot, well-acted, bizarre, and pretentious as hell, a true indie film’s indie film. It’s a bit of a slow burn; the hair-eating and the main character’s strange romance doesn’t really become prominent until the second half of the film. But the film keeps you hooked with Eli’s spiral into no man’s land, a loneliness and homelessness that uproots him and makes him open to pretty much everything. The climax is especially a stand-out, as it features one of the grossest scenes I have seen in a long, long time (and I’m including the thing where I mentioned the main character humps haybales in that assessment). Now, I will say that this film doesn’t really say much that’s new; Bliss explored similar territory as the film is basically a treatise on the connection between art and self-destruction, and I feel like the indie world is maybe a tad overly concerned with bluntly making statements on the connection between creation and destruction, art and self-immolation. (Remember Mother!, that movie where the whole thing was about how artists are basically gods?) The crux of the film, and the thing that makes it unique, is the relationship between Anya and Eli; most importantly, the way Eli changes as he gets closer and closer to Anya. Whether she brings out his true self or accelerates the disease consuming him is up for debate. And maybe that’s what makes this film especially worth watching.
The closest thing I can compare this to is The Human Centipede, a slow burn where things get really gross the further you get into the film; it is significantly less gory as the horrors are mostly psychological, but it has the same impact. Did it scar me? A little. Was it disgusting? Absolutely. What am I giving it? A 9 out of 10. It’s not a perfect film, and its pretentiousness annoys me a little bit. No doubt it’ll annoy some of you too. But I think ARE WE NOT CATS is well worth your time. So sit 6 feet apart from that special someone, get something strong to drink (because you may just need it) and prepare yourself to consider breaking up… because this movie will definitely change your definition of love, for better or for worse.