We Are What We Are review

This is the sort of film that gives remakes a good name. Taking as its template the 2010 Mexican (not Spanish, no matter what Bloody Disgusting says) film We Are What We Are (Somos lo que hay) – itself a previous main screen selection at FrightFest – director Mickle and co-writer Damici take the central idea of a cannibal family and go off in a different direction.

In a deeply poor rural area of America, a middle-aged woman collapses and dies in a convenience store parking lot. She is Alyce Parker and she leaves behind grieving husband Frank (Sage), two daughters Iris (Childers) and Rose (Garner) and a son Rory (Gore). The family are reasonably well-known among the local community and run a rather shabby trailer park. What the community around them does not know is that they are cannibals, and have been for generations (the roots of the flesh eating which the family have mixed with religion is shown in a too-brief series of flashbacks).

When local GP Doc Barrow (Parks) discovers what the thinks is a human bone in the creek at the foot of his property, he suspects foul play. He is also looking for answers about the disappearance of his daughter some years before. The local sheriff has his hands full dealing with severe weather (it is perpetually raining in this film) and doesn’t take him seriously, so Barrow enlists the aid of a young deputy (Russell) to investigate further, off the record.

Within the family there are issues. The effect of generations of consuming human flesh has caused a degenerative neural condition. This is what indirectly killed Frank’s wife, and he is beginning to show signs of its effects. Youngest daughter Rose is questioning the family’s beliefs, and Iris has become the object of the young deputy’s affections. To further complicate matters, the Parkers’ neighbour Marge (McGillis) seems to be finding Frank more odd than usual.

The original film was set in an urban slum, and by transplanting the action into rural America, Mickle has crafted a slow-burning and potent slice of American gothic. Poverty and religion run through both versions of the story, but Mickle follows it through to the production and costume design. The Parker family seem to belong to an earlier time, despite owning mobile phones and pickup trucks. In the original it was the patriarch of the family whose death began the film; by changing this to the matriarch, Mickle introduces a creepy sexual undercurrent (although no real abuse is in evidence – well, not within the Parker family).   

Beautifully shot in autumnal greens, browns and greys, We Are What We Are is a deliberately paced film. In fact, it is a little too meandering in its first half, suggesting that Mickle and Damici didn’t quite have a handle on the story at first. However, they find it with a vengeance in the second half, and the film has a satisfyingly gruesome ending. Although there is more claret on display here than in the even artier Mexican original, this isn’t a gorefest. The film is also greatly enhanced by a wicked seam of jet black humour.

The performances are of a high standard – in particular those of the two young actresses Childers and Garner, who manage the difficult feat of making one sympathise with cannibals. Sage is excellent as the withdrawn father, but it is perhaps a mistake to show him only in a grief stricken state as it is hard to get a feel for his character’s "normal" level of behaviour (he seems a bit to withdrawn and strange not to have attracted attention up to this point). Tarantino regular Parks delivers his usual gruff but softly spoken performance, but he does get some of the best lines.

We Are What We Are is a flawed but impressive film which, after the brilliant vampire apocalypse movie Stakeland, confirms Mickle and Damici as vital new voices on the American horror scene.

We Are What We Are at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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