Writer-director Jim Mickle has steadily established himself as a horror filmmaker that treats the art of shock value with rare maturity. In his feature-length debut “Mulberry Street,” he funneled a cheesy monster movie into a metaphor for gentrification and urban decay; in his follow-up, “Stake Land,” he imagined a B-movie universe of vampires versus humans with soft-spoken exchanges and lyrical imagery that instantly called to mind Terrence Malick. “We Are What We Are,” Mickle’s loose remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s 2009 Mexican cannibal tale, brings the filmmaker’s distinct blend of the elegant and the macabre to its ultimate realization. Outdoing the original by a long shot, Mickle’s slow-burn take on the story is poetic, creepy and, finally, satisfyingly gross.
Transplanting the drama to the Catskills, Mickle quickly establishes a disquieting tone always on the brink of a violent eruption. In the middle of a storm-covered landscape, a middle-aged woman carries her groceries to the car, starts to vomit blood and collapses in the mud, where she’s buried in a puddle and drowns. The matriarch of the reclusive Parker family, her death creates a sudden, unspoken tension in the household now headed by the grizzly Frank Parker (Bill Sage), a scowling beast of a man who spouts quasi-religious vagaries about his dedication to “our way.” His daughters, the grown Iris (Amber Childers) and teenage Rose (Julia Garner), watch and listen to their father’s ramblings with a fearful gaze, while the child of the house, Rory (Jack Gore), views his elders with wide-eyed confusion. Applying spiritual fervor to their unspoken cause, Frank tasks Iris with taking over the family’s main traditions.
Anyone familiar with the earlier movie knows that the Parkers’ secret is that they eat people. But both versions keep that revelation out of the picture for a good two-thirds of the running time, establishing palpable dread about the family’s relentless commitment to their values by questioning the extent to which the children accept the tenets they’ve been raised to embrace. Garner and Childers exude an eerie innocence for much of the story, simultaneously terrified by their father’s domineering approach and strangely in awe of his convictions. That mixture of fear and reverence takes on near-absurd dimensions in light of Frank’s evident insanity, brought to life by Sage with pious monstrosity on par with Michael Parks’ turn in “Red State.”
Perhaps Parks provided some on-set notes. Even more than their mother’s untimely death, the Parkers’ stability is threatened by the curious advances of local mortician Doc Barrows, played by a restrained Parks as a solemn, thoughtful man haunted by his daughter’s disappearance. As he grows increasingly suspicious of the Parkers’ antics and launches a private investigation into the discovery of human bones near their home, “We Are What We Are” settles into a rhythm of cross-cutting between the family’s shadowy preparations for an upcoming ritual and Barrows’ increasingly accurate hunt for the truth.
For this extended middle section, the director’s penchant for soft, picturesque visuals deepens the audience’s morbid expectations. Ryan Samul’s dark blue and black palettes take the movie out of its contemporary setting and suggest an ancient dance between the last vestiges of barbarity and the onset of civilized behavior. The Parkers face a mounting deadline to save themselves, but it’s never entirely clear who should save them. A gentle score pushes the enigmatic mood to these philosophical heights, but Mickle eagerly punctures the contemplative pace with a series of well-calculated frights methodically positioned throughout the story until the shocking finale.
Despite the neat calibration of grotesque and thoughtful ingredients, “We Are What We Are” eventually commits the same pratfall of the earlier movie: Once the Parkers’ tradition is clear, the buildup to the chaotic finish is frustratingly drawn out. A large portion of the meandering middle half creates a distancing effect from the palpable emotions established early on. Never truly a mystery, the doctor’s attempt to uncover the fate of his daughter contains a few too many scenes in which he puts together the pieces; meanwhile, Frank’s blatant insanity occasionally borders on parody.
But “We Are What We Are” is still a powerfully effective achievement for its genre because it wraps the usual bloody scares in a rare package of serious-mindedness. Make no mistake: Mickle wants to make you jump and scream, but death only arrives in this movie once its world comes to life, which makes each sudden turn all the more intense. When it eventually gets around to a final gruesome surprise, Mickle doesn’t disappoint. “We Are What We Are” devours expectations even as it satisfies the best of them.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Well-received in the Midnight section at Sundance, the movie lacks star power but should attract offers from genre labels willing to capitalize on strong word of mouth and an irresistible premise (as well as the lasting appeal of the original). An ambitious company might even try to make a sequel.