Three years ago, director Jim Mickle took the sparkle out of modern vampires in
Stake Land, a postapocalyptic vampire thriller featuring demonic bloodsuckers that you'd never take to prom. Echoing vintage John Carpenter, it succeeded at making vampires fearsome again while signaling the arrival of a new horror auteur with real vision. Now Mickle and frequent collaborator Nick Damici are back with We Are What We Are, a remake of Jorge Michel Grau's 2010 horror film about a family of modern-day cannibals. While some fans may question Mickle's decision to jump on the remake bandwagon with just his third feature, We Are What We Are is far from your typical flesh-munching romp: Deliberate, thematically rich and visually assured, it's a well-acted meditation on the theme of tradition that's been exquisitely folded into a quietly unsettling genre drama. The Parker family have never been much for company. In fact, none of their neighbors in the Catskills have ever set foot in their home, and that's how patriarch Frank (Bill Sage) likes it. He's intent on maintaining his ancestral customs, which wouldn't be understood by modern society. When Frank's wife Emma (Kassie Wesley DePaiva) suddenly dies, he tasks his eldest daughter Iris (Ambyr Childers) with maintaining those mysterious customs, which include feeding and caring for her younger siblings Rose (Julia Garner) and Rory (Jack Gore). Meanwhile, when the storm clouds open up and their small town starts to flood, the local authorities make some disturbing discoveries that seem to confirm everyone's worst suspicions about the mysterious clan. The very best horror filmmakers work in the realm of ideas, and in We Are What We Are, Mickle uses the topic of cannibalism to explore the ways in which we sometimes allow our past to dictate our future without questioning the rituals that dominate our daily existence. Whether it be religion, culture, or simple force of habit, humankind has a troubling habit of blindly following decrees issued in another era under drastically different circumstances; that's precisely the case with the Parkers, a family who define themselves by the desperation of their descendants, who generations ago resorted to cannibalism in order to survive a particularly harsh winter. We Are What We Are is a film that's rich in atmosphere from the haunting opening scene, which finds a dazed Emma gazing wearily at a picture of a missing teen, before coughing up blood and dying in a shallow puddle on a rain-soaked street. By using her death as the launching point to explore the growing divide between the Parker girls and their severe father, Mickle and co-screenwriter Damici (who also has a small role as the local sheriff) establish an air of quiet tension that hangs over the entire movie. There's never a shred of doubt that the Parkers have something to do with the disappearances that have plagued their town and its outlying areas for the past few decades, so instead the writers focus on the shifting family dynamics in the household as older daughter Iris carries on the family custom, while younger sister Rose recoils in horror upon being confronted with the reality of it. It's an ingenious way of creating tension in a muted film with little mystery, and a subplot concerning young Rory's fear of monsters affords the writers the opportunity to cleverly turn a familiar horror trope on its head. The performers, meanwhile, prove essential to maintaining the movie's grim tone. At the forefront is indie stalwart Sage, effectively balancing the role of a grieving husband with that of a stern father who seems not only lost in time, but in thought as well. Even though Frank exudes malevolence early on, he displays a paternal tenderness toward his children that blurs the line between villain and protector. Likewise, as the daughter reluctantly forced into a maternal role following the death of her mother, Childers is positively haunting while warding off the affections of a handsome young deputy (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn) and clashing with her horrified sister over their newfound responsibilities. The supporting players contrast nicely with the serious tone of the leads, especially Kelly McGillis as a kindly neighbor and Michael Parks as an inquisitive local doctor. They both bring a welcome likability that prevents the mood from becoming overly oppressive. We Are What We Are isn't as exciting or accessible as Stake Land, but it displays a marked maturity in storytelling that makes it worth a look for horror fans possessing the patience required to process its heady themes. For those brave souls, the reward is a film with the power not only to get under your skin, but to prompt deep discussion about the pitfalls of human nature.
All Movie Guide - Jason Buchanan