This review was originally published on January 21, 2013…
Jim Mickle’s Mulberry Street and Stake Land were accomplished horror films that earned their underrated status in genre circles. His third film, We Are What We Are firmly cements Mickle as one of horror’s most interesting directors. In fact, as much as I liked his first two films (and that’s quite a bit), We Are What We Are represents a notable leap forward in several key departments, drawing comparisons to the most atmospheric of Guillermo Del Toro’s foreign work. Mickle has always had a strong sense of style but the visual storytelling skill on display here is some of the strongest the genre has seen in years. We Are What We Are looks great. Well, as great as a movie about a family of cannibals can look.
Don’t worry. It’s not a spoiler. The Parkers eat people. They have for generations. It is a part of what is essentially a family religion, dictated by a book written by their ancestor, Alyce Parker, after a particularly brutal winter (think Donner Party brutal). The Parkers believe that ritualized cannibalism washes away sin and keeps them from evil. When the matriarch of the family dies as a flood is beginning to overtake their small town, the Parker’s secrets begin to the rise to the surface like the bones the rainwater sends trickling down the river.
Patriarch Frank Parker (Bill Sage) is clearly the most troubled of the lot, mourning his wife and yet unwilling to bend in his commitment to his “faith.” The ceremony will go on. All that this means is that Frank’s daughters – Iris (Ambyr Childers) & Rose (Julia Garner) – will have to begin participating more in the rituals. And by “rituals,” I mean kidnapping, killing, and turning people into stew.
Problems really arise when Doc Barrow (the great Michael Parks) finds what he thinks is a bone in the river. With his own daughter one of the unusual number of missing people, Barrow encourages Sheriff Meeks (Nick Damici) and Deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt Russell & Goldie Hawn) to dig a little deeper into what’s buried in their community.
There are few narrative surprises in We Are What We Are as we know many of the secrets of the Parkers early. They’re not relegated to a final act “gotcha moment” and so the relatively straightforward narrative (especially in an era when it feels like every horror movie needs a twist) allows for what’s often missing from this genre – tension, atmosphere, and solid character work. Mickle shows true growth in terms of visual composition. From the opening shot of Mrs. Parker slowly slipping underwater to the perfectly staged dinner scenes, We Are What We Are just looks great. Every technical element feels of a carefully-considered piece and the strong look of the film allows its director to forgo a lot of dialogue – often letting the disturbing pictures tell the tale. His use of rain as a symbol of something that washes away both sin and the covers we use to hide our secrets is spectacular. Mickle was so smart to avoid the grotesque angle that others would have chosen, shooting it more like a southern gothic than pure blood & guts.
In terms of performance, Childers & Garner are real finds, delivering the kind of engaging turns that ground a film like this one in something worth caring about. Childers perfectly conveys the world weariness of a teenage girl who knows that her youth is over and a nightmarish life is about to begin. And Garner really mesmerizes as she somehow displays both childlike vulnerability and the strength to fight back against a practice that she knows is wrong. As for the adults, Sage is strong but the show belongs to the fantastic Parks, getting another big role after Red State and nailing it.
We Are What We Are has some slow passages in its middle act that will lose some viewers who need a jump scare every five minutes. It’s a more stylized, deliberate, atmospheric piece than you might expect. Well, until the glorious finale, which is all anyone could talk about on the way out of its Sundance premiere. Don’t let anyone spoil it for you. The last course is the best.