Jim Mickle's impressive 'We Are What We Are' is a moody, mournful retreat into Gothic horror
We Are What We Are Entertainment One
Director: Jim Mickle
Screenplay: Damici and Jim Mickle, based on a 2010 screenplay by Jorge Michel Grau
Starring: Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Bill Sage, Michael Parks, Wyatt Russell, Jack Gore and Kelly McGillis
Rated R / 1 hour, 45 minutes
Now playing on VOD
(out of four)
The word is never spoken. Like the people in the small town in which it's set, We Are What We Are is mostly unassuming and keeps to itself. Unlike the townsfolk, we have a good idea of what's going on, but the movie itself barely acknowledges it head-on. The more left unspoken, the better.
Give credit to Jim Mickle for making a movie about a family of cannibals that refuses to indulge the most sensationalized or exploitive expectations of the concept. While he clearly has a healthy respect for genre, this never feels like a genre film, but rather a soulful slice of Americana that just happens to involve gruesome events and ideas.
Mickle has just about mastered the art of understatement in his horror filmmaking. His postapocalyptic vampire movie Stake Land three years ago felt like anything but your standard vampire movie, and here again with We Are What We Are - with an even more disturbing premise - he simply lets the horror speak for itself, in solemn, hushed tones and subtle hints.
He's not trying to be coy, but rather letting an atmosphere set in and allowing the characters to be considered on their own terms. The Parker family - led by patriarch Frank (Bill Sage), along with his two daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) and young son Rory (Jack Gore) - have assimilated quite nicely in this modest, traditional society, and apparently have for quite some time. They've lived on this land for generations, holding to the same customs and beliefs - which include cannibalism as a sort of religious rite.
They keep mostly to themselves, but they're fairly well-liked around town, in a place seemingly full of families who keep to themselves. They get on well with their neighbors. The local doctor knows them by name, and even helped deliver the Parkers' children.
The family is at a crossroads. The mother has just died, leaving Frank almost inconsolable but just as fiercely determined to continue on with family tradition. His daughters may not be fully ready to take on the duties their mother has now left to them, but they'll simply have to grow up a bit faster now. This goes double for the oldest daughter, Iris, who, it is suggested, will have to assume the matriarchal role alongside Frank. Complicating matters on that front is her ongoing flirtation with the kind and unassuming Deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell).
Mickle approaches the story first and foremost as a drama, allowing the disturbances to trickle in without overwhelming everything else. Perhaps his greatest skill is building atmosphere, once again - as with Stake Land - going for a sublime, picturesque naturalism, the perpetually overcast sky reinforcing the quiet buildup of mourning and doom. As the film opens, a large flood is on the horizon, as if determined to wash away the Parker clan and their traditions once and for all.
Indeed, the Parkers are tragic figures of a sort - particularly the daughters, who are old enough and mature enough to fully understand the schism between their customs and those of everyone else. They're both attached to their father and terrified of him, uncomfortable with what they do and unable to break from it. Frank is a bit of a wreck himself, his hands shaking with the onset of the same neurological disorder that took his wife. And yet he still commands their fear and their obedience, even as his health deteriorates and his biblical mumblings become less and less coherent.
A side plot involving the aforementioned doctor, Doc Barrow (the always-excellent Michael Parks) is a bit bumpier, as he begins to put certain pieces together about a series of disappearances, including that of his own daughter several years earlier. It's a transparent plot function and proceeds a bit too easily and conveniently, but Parks' weary and soulful performance saves it.
There are certain moments - most notably when Doc Barrow's unofficial investigation collides in some way with the Parker family story - that strike the wrong chord, including one unintentionally funny line of dialogue late in the film.
Which is not to say that We Are What We Are is without some intentional humor. As somber and elegiac as the film generally is, Mickle provides levity in key moments with the use of a few terrific music cues that underscore the absurdity of his core concept - particularly during the film's beautifully macabre climax. But he's careful not to take that slyness too far and push it into farce. The film is too grounded for that. Cannibalism may be an inherently silly thing, but Mickle's film - a remake of a 2010 Mexican film I haven't yet seen - is less concerned with exploiting its morbidity and more interested in the raw and primal variation of human nature it uncovers. What results, in his depiction of the Parkers' warped sense of tradition, is a wry and thoughtful rumination on familial loyalty and the dynamics of patriarchal authority.