We Are What We Are is what it is. That’s a compliment, because it’s a genuinely creepy descent into gothic horror, drenched in mystery until the atmosphere is so damp you’ll start to worry about pneumonia.
In fact, that mystery is such an important part of We Are What We Are that I’m worried about it, since marketing this movie without revealing what the hell is actually going on will be a real bitch of a thing to do. If We Are What We Are’s secrets are revealed early, and butts do get in the seats, those butts might get shifty because they’re going to have to wait for the film to get to “the good stuff,” which I say with sarcastic air quotes, because it’s only after that halfway mark, when the truth behind the tragic Parker family is revealed, that Jim Mickle’s film begins to lose steam and succumb to familiarity.
But oh, that first half romanced me. Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner star as Iris and Rose Parker, two young girls raised in relative isolation by their father Frank, played by Bill Sage, and their mother, who does suddenly in a flash flood at the start of the film. This brings unwanted attention from the authorities, and the local doctor, played by Michael Parks, who finds something suspicious during the autopsy. Iris and Rose are too busy to worry about prying eyes, however, as their mother’s death has left them with mysterious responsibilities to Frank and their little brother Rory, played by Jack Gore, that are too near to flee, but too disturbing to talk about openly, even amongst themselves.
Jim Mickle’s last feature, Stakeland, was a competent but forgettable post-apocalyptic thriller with vampires in the place of zombies, but he’s in rare form here, crafting a tale of quiet dread reminiscent of a Shirley Jackson novel. The doom, the gloom, and the horrific truth kept just out of the audience’s reach make the build up in We Are What We Are a potent motion picture, and Mickle films it with genuine class and moderation. Eventually, the truth becomes more and more unavoidable, but the characters still refuse to reveal it anyway, leaving a stark shadow of doubt that leaves a cold spot in the theater.
But then the truth finally does come out, and We Are What We Are transforms into something rather more conventional, with cops closing in, deaths aplenty and a gruesome finale that, honestly, strains credulity but ventures so deeply into the truly macabre that the palpable sense of alienated terror still manages to cling to the screen. A lot of the credit for that is owed to the cast, particularly Childers, Garner and Sage, who stalk about their homestead with the same grim determination as a poet trudging about his castle, thinking ponderously about the ghosts hiding in the walls. The young girls are in a particularly unsettling position, we eventually find, and are just human enough to want out but also already so entangled with the Parker legacy that going through with their fate almost seems like another Tuesday. It’s a difficult balance, keeping the audience in the dark from every aspect of the plot except for their reactions to it, and these actors manage it beautifully.
There are details to describe that make We Are What We Are seem less than it is, but at least when the horror movie begins in earnest we’re already involved, and the characters never turn comical, though broadness does enter the fray. I write this in vague tones to spare you the disappointment of not seeing the film on your own terms, but I suspect by the time it reaches theaters, the cat will be let out of the bag (it’s already a remake of a foreign film, and every plot description I’ve found online contains spoilers for the remake, even though it seems many changes have been made). When We Are What We Are gets picked up, avoid the marketing like the plague: no trailers, maybe even no posters, just wait until it hits a theater near you and then enjoy the ghoulish atmosphere, and hope that it gets you through to the end, when it loses more than a teensy bit of class.
Photo Credit: Ryan Samul
And check out these other reviews from Sundance 2013:
Who is Dayani Cristal?; starring Gael Garcia Bernal
Two Mothers; starring Robin Wright and Naomi Watts
Austenland; starring Keri Russell
Emmanuel and the Truth About Fishes; starring Kaya Scodelario
Don Jon's Addiction; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson
Virtually Heroes; produced by Roger Corman
Breathe In; starring Felicity Jones and Guy Pierce
Inequality for All; featuring Robert Reich
Blue Caprice; starring Isaiah Washington and Tim Blake Nelson
Fill the Void; starring Renana Raz
Running From Crazy; featuring Mariel Hemingway
Wrong Cops; starring Steve Little
Hell Baby; starring Rob Corddry and Leslie Bibb
Stoker; starring Nicole Kidman
Escape from Tomorrow; shot without permits at Disney World
Before Midnight; starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
Afternoon Delight; starring Kathryn Hahn and Juno Temple
Ass Backwards; starring Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael
I Used to Be Darker; starring Deragh Campbell
Magic Magic; starring Juno Temple
Prince Avalanche; starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch
Sweetwater; starring January Jones, Jason Isaacs and Ed Harris
Crystal Fairy; starring Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffman
S-VHS; sequel to found footage horror film V/H/S
Lovelace; starring Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard and Sharon Stone
The East; starring Brit Marling and Alexander Saarsgaard
After Tiller, about abortion doctor George Tiller
Citizen Koch, about The Koch Brothers and campaign finance contributions
Gangs of Wasseypur, a 5 1/2 hour Indian crime epic
In Fear, a horror movie set entirely within a car
The Rambler, starring Dermot Mulroney
What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love, about a school for the blind and deaf
Upstream Color; starring Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz