Wednesday, October 30, 2013

We Are What We Are (2013)

We Are What We Are (2013)
Dir. Jim Mickle
Written by Nick Daminic, Jim Mickle
Starring Bill Sage, Julia Garner, Ambyr Childers, Michael Parks, Wyatt Russell

The two teenage daughters of the Parker family (Julia Garner, Ambyr Childers) have some big problems. Their mom has recently died, their father is grief-stricken, there’s no work in their tiny Appalachian town, access to the outside world is limited by torrential rains, and to top it all off, dear old Dad isn’t going to let a little thing like Mommy’s death prevent the family from celebrating their quaint ancestral ritual the old-fashioned way: cannibalism and bible-reading. Two great tastes that taste great together.

I’m sort of divided about this one (a remake of a 2010 Mexican film of the same name that I haven’t seen). On one hand, this is an unmistakably well-made film. The performances of all the leads are excellent, the film looks gorgeous, the atmosphere is bleak and the score is ominous and evocative. I appreciate how seriously director Jim Mickle (STAKELAND, MULBERRY STREET) takes everything; this is a very serious, deliberately paced horror film which takes a sober and nuanced look at the tension hidden beneath the surface of this outwardly normal family. Despite the lurid subject matter, the horror is mostly psychological, coming from the teenage girl’s repulsion at the “ritual” they are expected to perform and their powerlessness to stop it or oppose their father’s stern will. And dad (Bill Sage) isn’t a one-dimensional villain, either; he genuinely loves his daughters, and fervently believes in the innate rightness of their way of life, even as his mind may be slipping a little from years of indulging his man-eating ways. These are great, complex characters, and they’re written and performed sublimely. Add to that the always great Michael Parks as the local doctor who may just be putting the pieces together, and there’s an abundance of things to admire and enjoy here.

Thanks lord, for providing us with this delicious meal, and on an unrelated note thanks for the ironclad moral code that makes this whole thing work so well.

Unfortunately, as much as I respect the craftsmanship here and the seriousness that Mickle brings to the story, I also wonder if it might have benefitted from a few cheaper thrills. The whole experience is so classy that it feels almost uptight, stodgy. While the tension between the family and the outside world (particularly Wyatt Russell [son of Kurt!] as a young deputy that catches the eye of one of the Parker daughters) works perfectly well, it’s also an extremely low-key kind of tension, and the particular structure of the story doesn’t allow for a slow build approach which gradually ratchets up the suspense, so much as a long, quiet setup with one final burst of action for the climax. The complicated tension within the family works much better, and in fact it’s almost a shame that the whole cannibalism thing is in there competing with what might otherwise be a mannered drama about the shifting dynamics of a family in the wake of a death. But wish it or not, the cannibalism is the ultimate star here, and the problem is that it ends up being the one plot element which has the least real impact. Far too much of the runtime gets burned hinting at things we already pretty much know, and when these thing finally do show up on screen they’re exactly what you imagined, nothing more, nothing less. We already knew it was coming, so when it arrives it’s not especially shocking.

Suspicious Michael Parks is suspicious. 

Cannibalism itself is such a prurient concept that most of the shock is in the basic premise itself; once you’ve imagined it, the worst is over, the movie doesn’t have anything to show you that’s gonna be worse than your own mind can produce. Hence, there aren’t really any standout sequences of particular horror, just the general, simmering unease that the conceit itself evokes. And for my money, that’s just a little too minor to hang an entire 105 minute movie on. I realize I’m a little more jaded than most audiences, but as far as I’m concerned if you want to really shake me you’re going to have to be a little more creative with your premise than just saying, “there is a family of cannibals.” I know, cannibalism is gross. What else ya got? For a horror movie about a family of cannibal serial killers, it’s oddly staid.  

It does have a great ending which finally brings a few unexpected elements and a little bit of much-needed energy. It’s too late by that point to save the thing from being an overall languid experience, but it does muster up enough punch to leave you with a respectable smile on your face. And of course, languid does not equal bad, exactly. The story is always compelling, and it’s helped along by strong character work and a meticulous attention to detail. It’s never boring, it’s just never quite as gripping as it ought to be. Mickle has nothing to be ashamed of in this nuanced, classy, and exceptionally crafted film. But I hope he approaches the next one with a little more bite.


  • SEQUEL: No
  • REMAKE: Yes, of the 2010 Mexican film of the same name.
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: None, but you and I both know that Michael Parks is one of the great ones, and that's all that matters.
  • BOOBIES: Yes, although in a decidedly unsexy situation.
  • DECAPITATIONS OR DE-LIMBING: None, most of the chopping is off-screen.
  • ENTRAILS? Same.
  • CULTISTS: This is all done in the name of family religion, I guess it is a cult by definition, but I'm still gonna say it's not really a "cult" movie.
  • SLASHERS: ...serial killers, but not slashers per se.
  • CURSES: No
  • (UNCANNY) VALLEY OF THE DOLLS? No dolls in this one.
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Mid, got a limited theatrical release this year.
The two daughters talk to each other about their problems.

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