Written by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle
Directed by Jim Mickle
Jim Mickle’s previous film Stake Land, a post-apocalyptic road movie with a vampiric threat, combined the tone of something like The Road with narrative flourishes (invincible hunter known only as Mister, vampires launched from helicopters like dropping bombs) more akin to comic books. The end result: a laboriously dreary film of poorly-defined characters, trite attempts at grandeur through some insipid narration, and an ill-fitting tone. One sequence showed some promise, however; the aforementioned vampire dropping takes place in a long, unbroken tracking shot of an outdoor party in a refugee town, suddenly disrupted by the threat from above, the only moment the lethargic film gets a pulse and actually visualises a frightening concept well. Mickle’s follow-up feature doesn’t contain an overtly frantic sequence like that, but instead the direction, consistency of an effective tone and building of genuine dread throughout the entire feature proves universally strong. We Are What We Are is not just a remarkable improvement compared to Stake Land, it’s also better than the Mexican film it is based on and one of the best, tensest horror efforts of recent memory.
Like in Jorge Michel Grau’s original film, Mickle’s take opens with the demise of an ailing parent in a public place. In one of the multiple gender reversals of the remake, it is the matriarch of the central family that perishes during a rainstorm; Emma Parker (Kassie DePaiva) leaves a general store coughing up blood, slipping by a nearby car and taking a fatal blow to the head as she falls into a ditch. As her body is consumed by the hard rain, the film’s title appears onscreen, and this image will have particular thematic resonance for what will follow. As Emma is buried in her watery tomb, skeletons from her family’s closet will quite literally come to the surface thanks to that very same rising water; the extended bouts of flooding in the area, the Catskills of southeastern New York to be precise, are causing once buried remains to become unearthed.
Emma’s death is a shock to the family, and the community who express fondness for the tightly knit though somewhat eccentric clan led by Bill Sage’s gruff, grim father, Frank. The Parkers are devout fundamentalist Christians, though they practice an additional ritual of another kind. Emma’s death arrives amid an extended fasting period building to this mysterious ceremony, and Frank deems it that the eldest of his two daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers), must take on the duties her mother ordinarily would have performed; duties that involve taking care – read into that phrasing how you will – of an unwilling participant dwelling in their basement. Teenage Iris and her sister Rose (Julia Garner) aren’t as keen on their family’s traditions, wanting to escape so that they, and their very young brother Rory (Jack Gore), can lead more ordinary lives. Iris, in particular, has some romantic interest in a slightly older gentleman she used to encounter at school, now a police deputy (Wyatt Russell) who just so happens to be assisting the investigations of the town doctor (Michael Parks), whose daughter went missing many years ago. In performing the autopsy of Emma, the man finds evidence of deterioration that, though first thought to be signs of Parkinson’s, actually seem to suggest a specific disease prevalent in tribal regions of Papua New Guinea, with only one sinister explanation seeming applicable when taken into consideration with what the floods are bringing to the fore.
If the original film tended to lean more towards dark comedy, full of gallows humour and satirical swipes at Mexican living, Mickle’s version, which is largely different in terms of narrative (and not just in regards to its gender swaps for each family member), is firmly entrenched in the language of the American Gothic, replacing grime with discomforting lyricism regarding the nightmare it unveils. Though the details of the family’s ancient ritual will be known to those who have seen Grau’s film, or anyone who has read most given samples of writing on either work, this review has refrained from outright spelling it out for the unfamiliar in line with Mickle’s own preference to gradually (and often quietly) reveal its details. In contrast to the set-piece heavy film language of Stake Land and many a contemporary horror, outbursts of visualised horror and violence are withheld until absolute breaking point, whether easily anticipated or not.
Atmosphere is the key strength here, with Mickle and his collaborators exhibiting finely tuned, skilled craft, particularly in the evocative imagery of Ryan Samul’s terrific cinematography, thankfully not disrupted by an abundance of cuts on the editing front. The lighting and colour palettes, alternating between the warm browns and oranges of candlelit interiors and the greys and anaemic blues of the near-perpetual rain, position the Parker property as a place out of its time in relation to the modern if still very much backwoods town surrounding it, supporting a few flashback scenes set in the 1700s in which the initial sins of the family’s ancestors are established to pass down through their lineage; as much as Iris and Rose may want to follow a new path, they may well be destined to always be what they, well, you can guess from the film’s title.
A successful stroke on a narrative level is to not isolate the film’s perspective to just the Parkers. The original followed some detectives pursuing the trail that led to the family, but the inquisitive supporting players of the deputy and doctor here are considerably more rounded individuals and very sympathetic too, greatly aiding the tension of particular story directions and the pervading sadness of the piece. Parks, on soft-spoken form, is a highlight, but it is the stellar leading ladies who leave the biggest impression. All three performers thrive on understated grace that helps stress plausibility and veer the film away from a camp route it could so easily venture down. Some of Bill Sage’s early lines and his delivery of them almost do take it that way, but his oft-kilter menace is largely effective throughout the rest of the proceedings.
Though his character could so easily snap on numerous occasions, Frank’s largely withheld outbursts are in sync with Mickle’s direction of this very strong film. His release comes when he acknowledges that nothing can be restrained anymore if he wants to protect his unit’s ways, just as We Are What We Are’s moments of cinematic catharsis come when its helmer knows they will prove the most effective.
– Josh Slater-Williams