The Premise: A long standing family tradition is threatened to be revealed when an extreme storm arrives in the area.
—— The Review
The Parkers are Cannibals. The Parkers are also fine upstanding citizens who run a Trailer Park in the Catskills. It is implied that they have lived here for years and plan to live here even longer but, with the death of the matriarch and a torrential rainstorm chipping away at the earth where past bodies are buried, the family will have to work hard to keep their traditions secret.
With Mother gone, Iris, 19 (Amber Childers, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, 2003) and Rose, 14 (Julia Garner, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, 2012) take over the responsibilities of preparing the body for the Sunday dinner. They are entrusted with the sacred tome replete with exact breakdown of dashed lines and cutting instructions. While the Dad, Frank Parker (Bill Sage, Glitter, 2001) mourns the loss of his wife he also struggles to keep the family secret away from the ever-nearing eyes of the authorities.
We Are What We Are is a very competent film directed by someone who is one film away from discovering his potential. Director Jim Mickle (Stakeland, 2010) has a wonderful sense of space and mood. In a film that could easily have been full or melodrama and loud arguments we he has given a subdued film full with level headed characters; a welcome addition to horror. The characters are intelligent people who are aware of themselves and their place in the world yet, observant enough to see how the world might see that their lives are different.
Repeatedly in films in order to build suspense the writers and directors make their characters more aware than they ever could be yet most of us (thankfully) do not presume an axe murderer is in the tree-line even after someone has passed on a campfire story of murder. So, when next door neighbour Marge (Kelly McGillis, Top Gun, 1986) knocks on the kitchen door mentioning she might have heard the sound of a girl crying below the shed, Rose calmly and with not hint of nervous lets Marge know that whatever she thinks she heard could not have been true. Marge calmly leaves their yard and heads to bed. Why would she question it any further? Who would?
The film is filled with these lovely scenes of humanity. Another also involves Rose who takes the Deputy up the river to see their family Graveyard. This would-be suitor who has known Rose for years and doted on her for just as long professes his love for her. Rose knows that she is doomed to be alone with her family and their strange traditions and with grief behind her eyes tries in vein to push him away but, her need to be loved and her loneliness overcomes her and she kisses him. Perhaps this one afternoon in the rain will get her through the years ahead.
All the while the storm is beating at The Parkers, Doc Barrow (Michael Parks, Red State, 2011) whose daughter has been missing for years discovers a finger bone in the creek that rushes past the Parker’s land. Parks’ engrossing yet subtle performance is a treat. Much like the grand river slowly revealing The Parker’s past crimes Park’s portrayal of Doc Barrow with his silent strength begins to peal back the layers of the secrets their little town has not been privy to.
Ryan Samul’s gorgeous cinematography deserves a mention. His beautifully lit shots place a sense of dread over the proceedings. The Grey of the impending storm, the vibrant greens of the forest that surrounds The Parkers and finally the warmth of Marge’s home where evil does not preside.
We Are What We Are is making a statement about family but it fails at almost every turn. Having never met the mother we have no connection to her and once we find out what she did for the family we have even less to care for her. We hardly see the children react to her passing and the father figure is cold and you wonder why anyone is here at all. The implication that these people have worked together as a family to keep this cannibalistic lifestyle a secret only confuses why Rose and Iris become disenchanted in the end. The plot points are laid out and you can, indeed, put two and two together but they are so weak that you find yourself wishing they would just get to the killing.
The story takes a slight left turn in the final act and there are many horror fans that will consider this the true shining star of the film but in fact it is the weakest point. While my 13 year old self -who would not have analyzed story structure and character- would have jumped with glee at this, this world weary reviewer finds it dull and shocking for shocking’s sake. I think what offends me most with the final act is that after a promising first 2/3rds I felt let down by such a cliché. At times like this I think of the line in Magnolia, “You should know better.” and the writer’s should have. With the skill conveyed in earlier scenes we know they had it in them. Perhaps the studio pushed for it or maybe their inner 13 year old came out in them to say, “Cool.”
—— The Denouement
By no means is We Are What We Are a bad film. It is a solid effort by an able Director, a brilliant cinematographer and a first rate group of actors. A moody film with an interesting premise lost its way. Although the characters themselves are strong their relationships to each other is where it falls apart.
But, on some rainy Sunday afternoon you could do much worse than throwing this film on.
James C. -The Cold Open-BC