I am doing the 31 Days of Horror Challenge. Every day in October, I will watch a different horror film I have never seen before and write about it here on the blog.
Writer/director Jim Mickle and his co-writer/leading man Nick Damici have steadily worked their way up the genre ladder. Their first feature, the apocalypse by way of rat-people indie Mulberry Street was a creature feature that took its premise seriously and overcame some very rough effects work to succeed. Their next film, the ambitious vampire saga Stake Land, was a bit of a meandering affair with some great individual scenes, but didn’t completely hold together as a whole. Still, it continued the pair’s serious take on genre material that is normally not treated with much respect. With We Are What We Are, Mickle and Damici (instead of the lead, he takes a supporting role this time around) have harnessed all the promise they showed with their first two films to deliver a certifiable instant classic. Is that hyperbole? Maybe, but this is one stunning film.
The Parker family is a close-knit clan that has done their best to keep much of the outside world at bay. They practice an odd form of religious fundamentalism that calls for them to fast for a weekend before a ceremony has to be performed. This ceremony is talked around and hinted at for much of the first two acts of the film, but it’s obvious that their year revolves around this most important of events. But this year, their fast has just begun when tragedy strikes. Emma (Kassie Wesley DePaiva), wife of patriarch Frank (Bill Sage) and mother to Iris (Ambyr Childers), Rose (Julia Garner), and Rory (Jack Gore), has a seizure and drowns in a ditch that is rapidly flooding due to heavy rains.
Frank is almost inconsolable with grief, leaving it up to Iris—barely out of her teens—and Rose—barely into her teenage years, to carry on the part that Emma played in the coming ceremony. At the same time, the doctor (Michael Parks) in their small town starts doing some digging into what might have caused Emma’s seizure, while wondering just why Frank’s right hand tremors like it does. To say any more would ruin many of the film’s disturbing twists. Just remember, this is a horror film.
Mickle has always cast his films well and this one is no exception. Sage is a towering presence in the film. With his full beard and swept back hair, he looks just as much like a wild animal as a potentially unstable father. His insular, mumbling performance is disturbing even before the occasional flashes of anger he shows when someone dares to question his authority. Childers anchors the film, highlighting Iris’ reluctance to carry on the tradition of the ceremony while not wanting to disobey her father. Garner and Parks both provide a much-needed balance of humanity to the darker, tortured performances of Sage and Childers, giving the plot a spark of hope amongst the despair.
We Are What We Are is based upon the 2010 Spanish-language film of the same title. I have not seen that film, so I don’t know how much of the plot and story structure can be credited to Mickle and Damici, but story-wise, this is close to a perfectly constructed film.
Mickle carefully uses the first act to set up the various questions and variables the characters will face while creating a mood of almost suffocating grief and menace. There are no cheap scares or attempts to startle the audience during this set up, but there are plenty of hints that Frank is a few cards short of a full deck and that his grip on his family is tenuous at best. I described Sage’s appearance as being like a wild animal and it’s easy to see the character of Frank as a dangerous animal forced into a corner. When and how Frank will snap is just one of the questions raised early on. That question, along with every other one is answered as the second act seamlessly moves into graphic horror territory. But where the film goes from good to great is how every answer seems to lead to the same question: how bad are things going to get? The third act builds to two stunning set-pieces of suspense and straight-ahead horror that answer that question and are among the most skillfully written, acted, and edited scenes I have ever seen. Too much hyperbole again? I don’t care.
There is not a misstep to be found in We Are What We Are. From the chilly cinematography to the lived-in feel of the locations and sets to the mournful score, all the elements work together in elegant precision. This is not just one of the best horror films I’ve seen this year, this might be the best overall film. Seek it out.
Note: I chose not to include a trailer for this film because I feel every available one gives away too many of the film’s plot points.
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