We Are What We Are

We Are What We Are


Reviewed by: David Graham

Jim Mickle makes good on the largely unfulfilled promise shown in Stakeland with this measured rural Gothic take on the Mexican cannibal family drama We Are What We Are. Much of that film’s dynamic is reversed – the urban setting becomes the countryside, the brutal matriarch replaced by Bill Sage’s more outwardly loving patriarch – but enough of the original’s sombre spirit is carried over to make for an effective companion piece rather than a slavish retread. Sadly, some of the more intriguing elements of its predecessor have been forsaken – such as the unsettling hints of incest and its poignant handling of homosexual awakening – but what remains is still a sturdy and stirring fable that exercises rare and admirable restraint in tackling its ghoulish subject.

The Parker clan find themselves in a state of disarray when their mother dies unexpectedly, leaving their ailing father to feed and raise his two teenage daughters and pre-pubescent son. They’ve always been outsiders in their close-knit community, but this personal tragedy makes the daughters more desperate for external human contact, while their father fights to keep their customs alive and their dark history secret. As a local father with a missing daughter grows suspicious of their apparent piety, days of rainstorms threaten to exhume the skeletons in their closet, and the sisters come to realise that they may have to abandon the ways of the past if they hope to carve out a future.

Stakeland stood out for its gorgeous cinematography and pastoral settings, and Mickle utilises both of these again for this more downbeat and ominous tale. The autumnal tones and gathering clouds form a perfect symbolic backdrop for the Parkers’ fading rites and beckoning reckoning, Mickle expertly turning the screw through his lingering shots of nature and the elements in transition. The Parker household is also etched with haunting care, echoing their past but showing how their lives are crumbling around them. The children wander around glumly like prisoners – or ghosts, even - within it, and their father’s physical shows of affection are undercut by the psychological stranglehold he has on them through their idiosyncratic lifestyle.

The teenagers’ seeming lack of self-awareness regarding their family’s ways is one of the most intriguing aspects of Mickle and co-star Mick Damici’s script: curiously, it’s younger sibling Rose who appears the most modern and morally awake, while Iris is closer to her father’s temperament and attitude towards the outside world. This friction powers much of the slow-burning narrative, with a reliably magnetic Michael Parks' grief-stricken investigating proving the catalyst for Mickle's heady brew of plot strands boiling over.

Ambyr Childers conveys the pressure the world-weary Iris is under brilliantly, while Julia Garner shines as the otherworldly Rose; she's definitely one to watch, with a timeless style that will no doubt see her far. Despite being something of an archetype, Bill Sage also makes a strong impression as Pa Parker, the Mysterious Skin star grizzlying up to embody a man whose pig-headed devotion to his ways can only lead to disaster. Kelly McGillis's late career renaissance as an unlikely scream queen continues - after supporting roles in Stakeland and Ti West's The Innkeepers - with another keenly observed performance as the family's supportive neighbour, set up immediately as one of the most tragic characters and offering a glimpse of hope to the children through her unfettered support.

Despite the contrasting surface, Mickle references some of Jorge Michel Grau's most memorable imagery, with the ever-watching clocks spelling doom all around the family, and the quasi-religious rituals of their slaying proving just as disturbing second time around. Most impressively, he and Damici have concocted some unforgettable and intense new sequences that tap into the dark heart of America's history, giving specific explanation for the family's habits that recalls the brutal desperation of Van Diemen's Land. One scene in which Sage is overwhelmed with panic when his crimes come literally washing over him is especially unforgettable.

With a needling score ratcheting the tension towards the final confrontation, We Are What We Are follows its inspiration by really upping the ante in its final stretch, leaving the audience on edge right up to the cathartic denouement and with plenty of food for thought thereafter. It's not as powerfully ambiguous as the original and hinges on a final act of sacrifice that's not quite as affecting as Grau's, but overall this is by far Mickle's strongest work to date and deserves to be appreciated by forward-thinking horror fans and art-house audiences alike.

Reviewed on: 19 Sep 2013
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A cannibal family faces an uncertain future following a bereavement.
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Director: Jim Mickle

Writer: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle

Starring: Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Michael Parks, Wyatt Russell, Kelly McGillis

Year: 2013

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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