Director: Jim Mickle
Starring: Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Michael Parks
Rating: 4 out of 5 bones. This film starts off slowly– really slowly– which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the slow pace establishes an ominous, unsettling tone for sure, but I’ll admit that if the film had remained solely an atmospheric horror with no climax or payoff to be had amidst all the dread, I’m not sure that I would have enjoyed or appreciated the film as much as I did. It is precisely that the film’s careful quietness does indeed build toward something– something truly horrifying and disturbing, somewhat less of a twist and more of a seamlessly executed tonal shift, perhaps– that makes the film so chilling and yet so artful at the same time. We Are What We Are achieves this precarious balance by never exploiting the very horror of its plot, but rather, it lets it simmer and stew [the first of many unfortunate food metaphors, I’m afraid], the film’s slow burn eventually and satisfyingly culminating in a series of terrifying, stomach-churning explosions.
We Are What We Are centers upon the reclusive, mysterious Parker family. During a series of devastating thunderstorms and subsequent floods that ravage their essentially rural area, the matriarch of the family passes away. We come to learn that this isn’t such good news for the eldest daughter of the family, Iris, but we’re not immediately privy to why. The script is well-crafted in that sense. We never know more than we should at any given moment. We are outsiders, who learn the absolute bare minimum about the film’s central family and their strange, archaic traditions. We are forced to be active viewers, piecing together bit by bit the information we’re given, much of which is given to us in anything but cinematic ways. The film is, if nothing else, subtle and therefore, creepy, for lack of any better word.
What we eventually come to learn though, and perhaps we can consider the following to be *spoilers,* is that Iris must take the place of her mother as the overseer of an annual tradition that deals, basically, with kidnapping, harboring, killing, and ceremoniously preparing and cooking a human being. Even as we realize this, the film is still extremely sparing, and the effect is that much greater for audiences; we may be desensitized to the potential gore of these situations, but to only see segments and suggestions of these scenarios leaves more to the imagination and that is 100 times more difficult to stomach, I think. Even shots as simple as Iris and her sister Rose’s care and gentleness (mimicked hauntingly by the camera’s movements and the film’s music) in marking up the body with red lipstick, or a suggestive close up of a thick soup being ladled into a bowl, are enough to make us cringe while we are somehow still simultaneously intrigued about that which we have not seen, wanting to learn about that which we still do not know.
The soundtrack and acting are particularly notable as well. The music is particularly effective, building tone and suspense even in the latter half of the film which, arguably, already moves faster than the former half; like any great horror soundtrack should, the music enhances our fear and dictates even further how we should be feeling. And the acting is extremely naturalistic, making the cultish behaviors of the family seem that much more frightening and foreign. Another facet of the film that helped move the story forward beyond the boundaries of its tone is the fact that these storms are washing up quite a few things that should have been left buried: bones, mainly, and Parks’ character is on the hunt for the truth about these bones and about the Parkers, in the hopes that he will gain some insight and closure regarding his own long-since missing daughter. This aspect of the plot eventually gives the film a much-needed sense of urgency, I think.
I will end my review soon, before my fingers accidentally type too much, but I will say that the main climactic sequence is jarringly intense and sold the entire movie for me. It is as if we, as viewers, are riding in a car that has been going well-below the speed limit and which suddenly accelerates and, in many ways, veers right off of the road we’ve been traveling on entirely. The film remains tonally dark, and darkly beautiful, but everything is now also amplified within that; while the horror of the film has been fairly abstract (or rather, only palpable beneath the surface) for much of the film up until this point, now, that horror is more akin to taste than it is to scent– if I may be so cruel as to extend such analogies in a review of a movie about cannibalism, as I warned early on that I might. Analogies aside though, this film is successfully terrifying, even if not in the way that many of us may be used to. It moves much like any other dark and dreary indie drama until the more recognizably visceral elements are finally employed, but even those moments are handled with precision and artistry. The film never feels overly familiar, and it is never really all that predictable either. The ingredients [and this really is the last nauseating food metaphor I will use, I promise] of the film are in themselves so well-chosen and so creatively and so masterfully combined, that the resulting dish– though it certainly takes a while to cook– is one that will both fascinate and sicken you for a very long time.