Let me preface this review by saying that Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are is a frustrating experience. This isn’t because the film is bad; it’s not. No, it’s frustrating because you can clearly see that there’s a much better film hiding beneath the surface of what is an interesting concept.
Topically, the film is about a family of cannibals that must cope with the loss of a family member. This may sound absurd, believing a group such as this would possess empathetic concerns, but the film does an extremely good job of humanizing its subjects. Even the most unrepentant of the group, the father, comes across as a loving, if severely misguided figure. And the very idea that a group as sinister as that of a family of flesh-eaters could be just another home-spun slice of Americana is intriguing in the way it plays with our moral compass. We end up feeling as sorry for the father, a figure who can’t understand why his ways are wrong even in the face of mounting evidence, as we do for his victims. It speaks to the greater sense of ambiguity in which we view the world today, where in the same breath a man can be just and in another he can be a murderer.
Two key performances that elaborate on this idea are those of the young actresses that carry the film, as portrayed by Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers. Playing Rose and Iris Parker respectively, the two echo the experience of many eventual atheists and agnostics raised in closed religious families (or as an extension, homosexuals raised in bigoted households). The care given to the way in which these two young women begin to realize their own independence from the family’s doctrine is striking. They’re not outwardly hostile to beliefs they begin to see are wrong, nor do they immediately want to rebel; both even try to maintain the semblance of tradition for as long as they can endure. But eventually, the burden is too much, and both actresses beautifully struggle with that weight.
The problem with the film isn’t its subject or its characters. The problem is in the film’s logic. In an interview Mickle did with Cinedelphia, he stated that he likes to look for non-traditional material because most modern horror doesn’t challenge viewers. He does that to an extent with his film, but he also neglects an important part of that process: consistency. The film relies on a number of coincidences and leaps of blind faith to propel the plot forward. Additionally, the film’s finale will either inspire blind awe or straight guffaws depending on how willing you are to accept its abrupt shift in tone from deathly serious chiller into macabre satire. Ultimately, We Are What We Are is a good idea that doesn’t fully develop. Its Gothic images of Southern decay are deftly rendered by Mickle, and there isn’t a weak performance to be found, but it’s the film’s script that falls apart under the stress placed on it to mean something.
We Are What We Are opens today at the Ritz at the Bourse.