The Parkers aren’t your average family. Quiet and old-fashioned, they are relatively well-liked in their tiny Catskills town…even if they are a bit of an oddity. They just seem like that kind of polite religious family who keep to themselves and don’t cause much of a fuss where the rest of town—no, the world—is concerned. But when their matriarch slips and bangs her head one rainy day getting groceries, the family is thrown into an upheaval, with their generations-spanning secrets threatening to be exposed.
Mom dies on the eve of a family tradition, a three-day fast punctuated with a special feast. She was the one traditionally in charge with getting the main course, a task that has now fallen onto the shoulders of eldest daughter Iris (Ambyr Childers.) But Iris and her rebellious younger sister Rose (Julia Garner) are beginning to question the role of the tradition, and the authority of their stern father (Bill Sage). Meanwhile, local girls have gone missing and the local doctor (Michael Parks) has found a bone he thinks is human in the creek…just downstream from the Parker’s home….
The Parkers are cannibals, but in Jim Mickle’s austere, elegant remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s Mexican film, they aren’t the drooling, inbred hicks of schlock legend — even if their aversion to modern dress and technology puts them some place out of time. Mickle is less interested in exploring what its like to hack apart beautiful city-slickers than to parse the effect old tradition and religious fundamentalism can have on a family struggling to survive in an economically destitute setting, especially when the new generations begin to question how “right” said traditions are.
Mickle eschews grisly spectacle for intimate character, crafting a quiet, brooding drama that morphs, almost imperceptibly into a gory and intense horror film. Some may be put off by Mickle’s slow burn style, as We Are What We Are feels for much of the first half more like a grim indie drama than a genre piece, the excellent acting and well drawn characters counterbalanced with the grey, wet, dreary atmosphere (most of the film takes place during a rainstorm) and methodical, ponderous pace. But patient viewers will be rewarded — Mickle doesn’t forget he’s making a horror film, a horror film about a flesh-eating family torn apart by inner turmoil and the outsiders circling too close in, and in the second half he delivers plenty of bloody mayhem and violent shocks to appease fans, and he delivers them well. It’s just that, even more so here then in his previous features Stake Land and Mulberry St., he’s refined his ability to balance expected genre thrills with unexpected beauty, character and grace.
That said, We Are What We Are does get a tad slow at times, and one’s attentions may drift slightly. The acting, however, keeps you glued to the screen — with the exception of a useless “Deputy Doofus” type/love interest for Iris played by Wyatt Russell, the cast here is pitch perfect across the board, nailing their character’s types and revealing unseen layers. (Too bad veteran actress Kelly McGillis and Mickle’s frequent cowriter/star Nick Damici are given little to do in small roles.) Still, those are but only the most minor of flaws one may find here. Moody and compelling, quietly creepy in the ways its exploration of religious fundamentalism can tear apart a family unit, We Are What We Are is unlike any horror film on the screen now. And a smart genre fan will love it for being the way it is.
4 out of 5 stars
BONUS: Click HERE to read Johnny’s interview with We Are What We Are director Jim Mickle!