We Are What We Are (2013)
100 min., rated R.
In 2011, gifted writer-director-editor Jim Mickle put out the stark, gritty, but mostly dull post-apocalyptic horror indie "Stake Land." Nevertheless, the film stood as a future calling card of promising talent, more so than some A-listers, and he was bound to make a more cohesively successful film his next time out. Well, "We Are What We Are" is Mickle's follow-up (co-written with his "Stake Land" writing partner Nick Damici) and it's quite rewarding, but it's probably best to remain hush-hush about the particulars in review. Beautifully macabre, elegantly moody, and methodically suggestive, this American Gothic horror-drama for the whole family is never an explicit, viscous splatterfest right out of the gate and it's more thematically disturbing in its restraint and what little it shows.
During an afternoon rainstorm in rural Delaware County, New York, Emma Parker (Kassie DePaiva) goes into town for a few things at the food store, only to drown in a flooded ditch and never return. Back at her secluded farmhouse, her daughters, eldest Iris (Ambyr Childers) and 14-year-old Rose (Julia Garner), watch over little brother Rory (Jack Gore) and fast ("No flesh, no fruit, no grain" and that goes for a bowl of Sugar Pops) because it's what they do. The stern patriarch, Frank (Bill Sage), takes his time grieving over his wife but must keep up with his family traditions, as the close-knit Parker clan prepares for a feast that dates back to the 18th century. Being the eldest sibling, Iris takes on the responsibility of the matriarch (and even gets to be the one to identify her mother). Rose wishes they were like everyone else, but, as Daddy says, God has chosen them to be this way and "we've kept our tradition, in its purity." Meanwhile, a teenage girl goes missing and the local doctor, Doc Barrow (Michael Parks), whose daughter has also been missing, finds a human bone that washes up in a creek behind his house. Will the family's untraditional supper be their last?
It may not be an original property (it's based on a 2010 Mexican film), but Mickle makes it all his own, so it might as well be. With its quietly patient, unhurried gait and the director trusting his audience, "We Are What We Are" tells its story day by day, keeping us in the dark for quite a while and hinting at what it is the Parkers' religious family traditions involve. It also takes itself quite seriously with a morose, mournful tone for a story set in the gorgeously damp Catskills and yet never teeters into the realm of camp. As it carefully and gradually takes its time simmering and building dread, it gradually gets more grotesque. What culminates at the Parker dinner table isn't just a queasily gory shock for shock's sake; it feels earned and there's a catharsis behind it but it still isn't for the squeamish. All along, too, the film is an excellent mood piece through the crisp, strikingly evocative lens of cinematographer Ryan Samuel.
Mickle also casts all the right faces for his characters inside and outside of the Parker circle. As Iris and Rose, the eye-catching Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner both create empathetic oddballs whose humanity shines through when they question why they have to fast and go through what they have to do. These girls don't have much control over how they were brought up and that their father won't let them waver from his beliefs either is terrifyingly tragic. Bill Sage infuses Frank Parker with a low-key paternal warmth and a growing rage that comes out when outsiders try to interrupt his customs. Kelly McGillis also has a strong turn as the Parkers' compassionate neighbor Marge who lives in a trailer with her dog.
The smartest type of horror film is always about something else besides slayings and pure evil. Going in step with "The Woman" and the most recent "Jug Face," the film is about how religion can brainwash the young and innocent in a family unit. Without a jump scare in sight (okay, there's one, but it's organic within the young Parker boy's fear of a "monster"), "We Are What We Are" is adult-minded, art-house horror, the kind that creeps under the viewer's skin and doesn't forget to deliver the genre goods. This demands the attention of not only connoisseurs of well-done horror but of well-done filmmaking.
Grade: B +