Written by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle
Directed by Jim Mickle
Too few modern horror films take their cue from the power of suggestion. The less you show, the more terrifying your story can be. Some of the all-time greats of the genre, from The Haunting to The Shining, either show nothing scary or deliberately supernatural at all, or bide their time, allowing strange noises in the distance or unexpected shadows to do the heavy lifting. Not every blood-soaked entry is automatically bad for wallowing in gore—the recent Evil Dead remake did not want for the red stuff, but had a black-hearted charm anyway—but, as they say, less is more. And so it is with We Are What We Are, which almost entirely embraces the power of suggestion, to its advantage.
Remade from a Spanish film of the same name, We Are What We Are focuses on the Parker family, who live in a ramshackle old house in upstate New York. The rain is hitting hard on the weekend when the film takes place, causing flooding up and down the banks of the river running through the nameless small town. A more metaphorical flood is about to descend on the Parkers; in the opening scene, their matriarch, Emma, dies after hitting her head while being overcome by what looks like a bloody seizure. Father Frank (Bill Sage) is gutted to know that he’s lost his wife, and his two daughters (Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner) are equally stricken. But Emma’s death couldn’t, it seems, have come at a worse time: the Parkers are preparing for some kind of yearly ritual, preceded by a two-day fast. Interwoven with this plot is that of the town doctor (Michael Parks), who becomes suspicious of the Parkers after performing an autopsy on Emma. And then there’s that strange bone he found near his house, only rousing his suspicions further.
To say more would give away the big secret at the heart of We Are What We Are, a downright disturbing tale of a far too close-knit family. Co-writer and director Jim Mickle does an expert job of creating a lower-class vision; the film does descend into horror in its second half, but at no point does it feel less than a backwoods family drama, with stark, naturalistic visuals at its core. Once the blood begins to spill in earnest, the film takes on a modern Gothic feel; cinematographer Ryan Samul and Mickle construct some sequences as if creating twisted takes on a Norman Rockwell painting: the Parkers sit down to a very momentous dinner, dressed to the old-fashioned nines, even though the entire ritual at hand is positively disgusting and depraved. We do not need to see the gruesome details of what it took to make that dinner a reality; it’s horrifying all on its own without the gory details being revealed. There is some fairly graphic violence throughout, though it comes in such short and unexpected bursts that the film never feels as though it’s being excessive just because.
It is a shame, then, about the final 5 minutes of We Are What We Are, which are not only slightly nonsensical, but outrageous in all the wrong ways. Perhaps, considering the secret of the Parker family, Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici felt the urge to give in to the grossness of the situation. Perhaps they wanted to give genre fans a bang for their buck, even if it takes nearly 2 hours to get it. Unfortunately, they do so at the sake of kicking the power of suggestion to the curb. There’s no suggestion needed in the lurid and cartoonish finale, which may bring the story of the Parker family to a shocking and memorable close, but also leaves aside any semblance of moderately twisted realism in favor of the gooey and unpleasant. It is to the credit of the film’s cast, also including Kelly McGillis, that so much of We Are What We Are works as well as it does. (Garner and Childers, in particular, look appropriately gaunt and damaged, a pair of haunted souls trapped in a spiral of destruction.) This film comes so close, but falters in the end.
The small towns of America are full of desolate towns stuck in the middle of the 20th century, populated with families who know only each other, and who can’t trust anyone from the outside. The Parkers are just such a family, a twisted bunch who look for sustenance from within the bowels of their house, which resembles a cave from beneath. As a portrait of this screwed-up brood, We Are What We Are works on almost every level. Even if it hewed entirely to its Spanish source (and it doesn’t), this American version stumbles by going from an austere and interior setup to the bloodiest extreme in its final moments.