Film Review: We Are What We Are

We Are What We Are may be a redo of the 2010 Mexican film of the same name, but writer-director-editor Jim Mickle has made it his own and then some. Mixing in the horror mode, the family film, and one of the few rare taboo topics still around—cannib

With chillingly beautiful cinematography by Ryan Samul—perhaps too beautiful, as you tend to linger on the images rather than yielding to thrills—Mickle has taken the dark fatalism of Somos lo Que Hay by Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau and re-cast it as stoic American Gothic. How has he done this, in a film world which worries about crossover marketing, while still using the critically overused term mash-up?

First off, he replaced the young men in the film about secret cannibalism with two young women as leads, each beautiful and disturbed in her own way. Iris (Ambyr Childers of The Master) is the older, suddenly burdened with taking care of the family, and Rose (Julia Garner of Martha Marcy May Marlene) the quietly determined 14-year-old, both blondes Hitchock would have drooled over, despite their preternaturally pale alabaster skin and suspiciously red-rimmed eyes. Their sisterhood which triumphs (don’t ask) is the core of the movie, set in a section of Delaware Country in upstate New York. It’s a place which looks as downtrodden as the worst parts of Appalachia, devastated here by a flood of Biblical proportions.

The rain is relentless and so is Parker, played by Bill Sage, a spooky-looking patriarch straight out of a daguerreotype, protecting the family land and secret heritage from outsiders. We know fairly early on what threshold has been crossed, revealed soon after the mother in the family suddenly dies. It falls to Iris as the eldest daughter to conduct the quasi-religious rituals which precede the eating of human flesh (and which account for the disappearance of many area residents too). You can’t pick your family, as the old saying has it, and apparently you can’t escape your taste buds either, yearning for human flesh. After all, it’s an inherited trait, not really their fault.

The backstory is poetically integrated as Iris and Rose occasionally consult a family Bible of sorts and flash back to some of their ancestors in Puritan garb, dateline December 24, 1781, stranded and starving in a snowy wood. In fact, the image of a beautiful young nude female body pinned up on a tree, with a few chunks taken out, is ghoulishly gorgeous. If you don’t think sexuality and cannibalism are connected in some twisted way, this bit will force you to reconsider.

Gallows humor lightens throughout, like when the girls’ young brother Rory (Jack Gore) sucks and bites the thumb of a neighbor (a stoutly effective—in every way—Kelly McGillis) who is helping out the grieving family. And happily there’s not too much of the “going to the basement” a la Jeffrey Dahmer. So other images sink in: the Macbeth-like moment when Dad frantically tries to capture all the discarded human bones the family has tossed, released now by the overflowing river in can’t-be-stopped numbers. Lady M. comes to mind as Iris tries to wash off all the blood.

Mickle also creates some startling feminist imagery: the blood-red tube of lipstick used to mark up a corpse for cutting, and of course the girls’ hair, the stuff of myth and symbol. After her first sexual encounter, Iris’s tresses are put up. She’s grown up now. And when Rose, whose braids have been tightly wound for most of the film, suddenly lets loose with corkscrew curls which go every which way, it’s a metaphor for the power she suddenly, unexpectedly, seizes.

One false note temporarily spoils the mood: a dalliance in a field of wildflowers with Iris and a would-be boyfriend, flower offered and stuck behind the girl’s ear. It’s the single cliché the film does not rise above, though the suitor sparks a witticism from the girls checking him out when he first comes a-callin’. “Nice haircut,” they say a bit sardonically of his “look” from a world which they know they will never be part of.

We Are What We Are has elevated the horror genre into first-class moviemaking, apologies to Nosferatu. As for the topic of cannibalism, well, Eating Raoul and Sweeney Todd had their charms, but you always knew it was a joke. This film is a female-centric tale about taking back your life, executed by a guy filmmaker, with a generic-sounding title which fully resonates only in retrospect.