Hey, kids! Want to see a sickeningly disturbing movie that’s so downright unsettling you’ll actually do that involuntary movement where you put your hand over your mouth in horror? We Are What We Are is for you! Directed by Jim Mickle, this marks a pretty stark change of direction since Stake Land. And while this movie also takes itself seriously (and also has a bit part for Kelly McGillis), it has every right to, given its subject matter: cannibalism.
And not the schlocky, Cannibal Holocaust/Wrong Turn kind. This is dripping with American Gothic, from the beautifully-shot Catskills setting, to the (very) vintage clothes that Frank Parker (Bill Sage) expects his children to wear for dinner. Indeed, the slightly anachronistic atmosphere in the Parker household (vinyl records, broken-down furniture, questionable hygiene practices, no technology – not even a fucking TV), lends a suitably ghoulish quality to the film.
We start out with the family’s mother, Alyce (Odeya Rush) collapsing after bleeding from her mouth. She hits her head as she falls, then literally drowns to death in a ditch. We’re then introduced to Frank, a God-fearing alcoholic, who’s weak from fasting as part of their yearly traditional family ritual. Despite the mother’s death, Frank insists on continuing with dinner, but now that Alyce is gone, it’s up to the girls to take over, which involves both slaughtering and cooking this year’s victim. At the dinner table, Frank coos that their mother would be proud of such a well-made dish (which looks a bit like soggy lamb stew), and reminds everybody that God has compelled them to do this for generations, otherwise they would all get sick and die.
But happily family time is soon under threat when a big storm causes massive flooding, washing hundreds of years of human bones into the Parkers’ creek. This does not bode well for the Parkers, especially as they apparently did a shit job covering up their latest kidnapping, and new cop Deputy Anders (Kurt‘s son Wyatt Russell) is eager to solve that recent missing person case…
The movie’s a slow-burner, and is probably more effective for scare-seekers if they don’t know about the cannibalism, because the first act is all stunning scenery and character development, and then things only start to get creepier in the second. But the slow-burn is sort of like cooking oatmeal – steady and tense at the beginning, then wildly explosive at the end. The contrasts between the serene geographical setting and the sinister family dynamic get starker as the film progresses.
At the heart of it is some damn fine acting; in particular, Julia Garner, who plays the middle child Rose. Caught between her older sister’s age (when family comes first no matter what), and her little brother’s (too young to understand what’s really happening), it’s unclear to us or to herself if she truly supports this tradition, and the moments in which her broken, terrified spirit is wavering, well, it’s just utterly heartbreaking to watch, and it’s a hell of a performance.
Gore is evenly seasoned (sorry) throughout the film in eye-poppingly gruesome fashion, and those moments are as well-timed as tension-rousers as a punchline is to a joke. Speaking of, there’s almost none of that in this movie; it’s a pretty bleak affair. It’s a story that’s told in a linear, almost documentary-style fashion, and is a bizarrely fascinating portrayal of a royally fucked-up family, even without the added potential-incest weirdness in the dysfunction. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a film that’s told from the perspective of the cannibals, but it’s hard not to feel sorry for the children, who have a firm grasp on why this is all so wrong, and the clashses make for some tense and unsettling viewing.
Luckily, the dreamy imagery, tender moments of closeness among the siblings, and a genuinely sweet moment with older sister Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Anders are welcome respite from the constant dread. Resonant, too, is the score, by Stake Land composer Jeff Grace, and adds a melancholic feel.
Available on US Netflix at the time of writing, you might want to watch something light afterwards. Because nothing’s going to prepare you for that ending. I promise you.