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We Are What We Are

Movie Information

The Story: When the matriarch of a strange religious sect dies, it falls to her not-entirely-willing daughters to carry on their grim tradition. The Lowdown: This arty horror film is definitely something unusual and worthy. However, it may have trouble finding an audience, being too slow in its buildup for the horror crowd and too horrific for the art crowd. Not for the impatient or the squeamish.
Score:

Genre: Art-House Horror
Director: Jim Mickle (Stake Land)
Starring: Julia Garner, Ambyr Childers, Bill Sage, Kelly McGillis, Michael Parks, Wyatt Russell
Rated: R

I’ve called Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are “art-house horror,” because that’s really what it is. I don’t mean the term to be derogatory, though I suspect that this particular mix is going to make the film something of a hard sell, especially here in Asheville. The mix is not unheard of. Strip it of its indie/art-house cred and Winter’s Bone (2010) is essentially a horror picture. But — and this is a key difference — it never erupts into full-blown horror the way the last 20 minutes of the film do. And make no mistake, I am talking real, flat-out horror-movie horror — for better or worse. It is also one of the more striking films I’ve seen of late, though I find its resonance has dissipated a good bit in between watching it a few days ago and writing about it now.

The film is a pretty loose (the setting and the ending are completely different) remake of a 2010 Mexican flick that I haven’t seen. The story is not all that different — in broad strokes at least — from any number of horror films, especially those of the inbred hillbilly variety. But this differs in very significant ways. The family at the center of this story aren’t the usual uncivilized variety of utterly isolated lunatics. And beside their very personal religious beliefs, the Parker family is not separated from their community, making the proceedings all the more unsettling. They, in fact, appear to be well-liked — if a little bit odd. In fact they are very odd, something that comes to light as the family starts to unravel after a devastating rainstorm that leaves the family’s matriarch dead and the family’s secrets on the verge of being discovered by the community at large.

It doesn’t take long to realize what the family secret is, but if you want the film to reveal that secret in its own time (fairly early on), read no further till you’ve seen the movie. (Spoilers below.)

It turns out that one of the main requirements of this particular religion involves something called “the Lamb’s Supper,” which, if you haven’t guessed, is a cannibalistic feast. The film hints at this — or something like it — early on, but it takes a while to get to the, shall we say, meat of the matter. What makes the proceedings so much more disturbing than your average horror film lies in the fact that the death of the mother leaves the burden of slaughtering and preparing the grisly repast to her teenage daughters, Rose (Julia Garner) and Iris (Ambyr Childers). Neither of these girls — despite the father’s insistence — seems especially keen on continuing the tradition, but they don’t see any other way. It’s their moral quandary that gives the film its weight. And all the while, unbeknownst to them, the rain is uncovering the amassed evidence of past “celebrations.”

Most of the film is methodically paced and presented in striking images, with occasional outbursts of horror tropes. This looks like a horror movie that Terrence Malick might have made — assuming that Malick went off the deep end. As grimly uncomfortable as all this is, it does nothing to prepare the viewer for the film’s horrifying last act. While I would like to endorse this descent into genuinely shocking horror, it comes with most of the downsides that plague the genre — notably that it requires otherwise rational people to do the kind of stupid things only people who have never seen a horror picture would do. The finale doesn’t ruin We Are What We Are, but aspects of it do diminish its quality. Again, this is not for the squeamish. Rated R for disturbing violence, bloody images, some sexuality, nudity and language.

Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

25 thoughts on “We Are What We Are

  1. Jeremy Dylan

    I saw the poster for this and thought “Zach Galifianakas is really branching out these days”.

  2. Dionysis

    Looking at reviews of this film from other sources, it seems there is little middle-ground. Either people like it (with similar comments made in this review) or they do not (as one wag wrote: “We Are What We Are…Bored”).

  3. Ken Hanke

    Yes, well that was an IMDb user review you quoted. It’s often instructive to read the other reviews by said user. I’m not saying that professional reviewers are necessarily more reliable, but you have a better feel (if you know your critics) where they’re coming from. In this case, the user thought You’re Next was pretty swell.

    • Dionysis

      I liked Stake Land a lot (mentioning it in this forum a year or so ago), so I am somewhat curious to see this movie.

      The last ‘cannibal family’ flick I recall was an obscure film with Randy Quaid titled ‘Parents’.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Ah,one of Bob Balaban’s few theatrical films (Parents, I mean). This is very different.

  5. Ken Hanke

    Well, that’s not encouraging. I guess nothing can stand up to Johnny Knoxvile and dick and fart jokes these days.

  6. Edwin Arnaudin

    On the whole, no, but our screening of The Counselor was the best-attended of my three on Friday.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Well, it was the first show of the day of what looked like (on the surface) a mainstream movie with recognizable name actors. That draws a certain audience.

  8. Ken Hanke

    We may now fairly say that it bombed. A bigger surprise is how well Muscle Shoals did with two shows a day!

  9. Edwin Arnaudin

    A bigger surprise is how well Muscle Shoals did with two shows a day!

    As it should.

  10. Ken Hanke

    I don’t disagree, but I never expected it to come in as the 4th biggest money-maker of the weekend. Bear in mind, that’s a grand total of six shows.

  11. boatrocker

    Umm, I don’t usually post in the artsy fartsy cinema section. Unless it matters.

    Documentaries about music matter.
    (Brooklyn hipster interloper bottom feeders without a backbeat should ignore this.)

    Muscle Shoals music sounds like stand up analog music. Real music.

    Strangely enough, Hanke (the movie guy, not the music guy) brought it to our attention. Thanke Hanke.

    Ali, the Mountain X’s ‘OMG I love my Internet friends’ indie twee pop band from Brooklyn’,
    go back to sleep. Pretty please.

    Muscle Shoals. Yeah.

  12. Xanadon't

    I really wish the final 5 minutes spent a little more time in the editing room, and that the Tommy Strange song was ditched entirely. Aside from those complaints, this was otherwise a near perfect genre film for me. I was a little concerned when it slipped into crime-thriller amateur detective mode for a minute, but it wasn’t as disruptive as it might have been and the film found its footing and tone again pretty quickly and effortlessly.

    Until the damn overkill scene and that damn hokey song.

    Ugh. The entirety of the film was spent NOT asking for a corny it’s okay, it was all just a movie-type song, and then they slap exactly that on at the end, undermining a lot of what was achieved.

    That out of the way, I left feeling extremely impressed and much more unsettled than I would have imagined. In many ways I enjoyed this every bit as much as Stoker.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Strangely enough, Hanke (the movie guy, not the music guy) brought it to our attention. Thanke Hanke.

    You’re welcome, I think.

  14. Ken Hanke

    Until the damn overkill scene and that damn hokey song.

    I didn’t so much mind the overkill scene, but that song…good Clapton, what were they thinking? It’s not just hokey, it’s inapt and it diminishes the whole thing. I don’t know that I’ve so disliked a musical choice…well, not since “The Addams Family Rap,” anyway. I’m also not wild about having Michael Parks turn into one of those horror film cretins who stupidly just assumes the killer is dead without checking (and he’s a doctor, no less!).

  15. boatrocker

    Oh my, I’m so sorry for commenting about that
    Muscle Shoals documentary.

    If only I had not loved the primary source material.

    It’s actually a bad-ass ear-full.

    The music is awesome. The production value is ok-
    for movies made for amoral, ironic Gen Y/ Millennial types.

    Rick Rubin, T-Bone Burnett, barf.

    “By Clapton”,

    by the way should be changed to
    “By Duane, Wilson, Otis, Aretha, Keith, Boz, Mavis, etc”.

  16. Ken Hanke

    I see you persist in being true to your affected name. Though as boat-rocking is concerned, the fact that it took me nine days to even notice my boat had been atempted to be rocked suggests you’re not really living up to your billing.

    And, no, it’s “by Clapton.” You do know that you’re not in the thread about Muscle Shoals, don’t you?

  17. boatrocker

    The boatrocker thing is because I love kayaking.
    Google ‘Eskimo Roll’ for my backstory.

    Yes, it is an affected name as nobody on the Internets ever acts like themselves as if one is within arm’s reach of another (forums in general)- actors call it being in character or some sort of nonsense.

    That movie moved me as the primary source material was great. Again I stress the primary source material. Not the fact that it’s a movie.
    Is a “Yay! Finally a movie about Muscle Shoals” comment really that much of an intrusion?

    Any editorializing on my part is ok as you and your sidekick Robin get the other 99% of the posts on the forum. Is there any room for other opinions or is this a cinematocracy?

    As to the “by Clapton” thing, I’ll hold off on the Slowhand joke about him at least never dropping a bag of heroin off a building like a toddler. Oops, no I won’t.

    Again, I liked the movie. Thanks for sticking in there in a dying profession, aka journalism. To your credit, you are the antidote for snippy snarky posts about City Council resolutions to provide free yoga mats at meetings or the millionth microbrewery/tapas/singer-songwriter bar that lasts 6 months in this town.

  18. Ken Hanke

    You misconstrue. I do not have any problem with you posting here. I’d be happy if you did it more often, but I was pointing out that this isn’t the review of Muscle Shoals — it was merely mentioned in passing for making a good weekend take — but of We Are What We Are.

  19. boatrocker

    Ahhh, honest posting.

    Thanks for the invite to post more about movies, but I don’t get as fired up about movies as I do about music or books.

    The Clapton joke was only for a Brit being called ‘god’, by the way. Skip James, Charlie Patton, Bo Carter, the Holy Trinity.

    Yeah, I know I’m in the wrong parking spot, but as long as I’m here, shouldn’t I just act like I’m here for a valid reason?

    I gave up on live music for this website for many good reasons as I have my ears and my dignity.

    Food and beer, well, I can’t afford to to sample the goods once a week any more what with the War on Poverty (different than LBJ, it’s actually a war on the poor if you live in NC).

    It is nice to go see a ‘fancy’ movie (aka not boobs and explosions) once in a while. I felt like I was getting away with something.

    That and the age difference was refreshing- the whole movie theater wasn’t lit up with smarty pants phones with ‘teh mvie sux, its abt old msic.’

    I still hope I’m the first to coin the phrase cinematocracy, but then I’m not addicted to this forumistalic stuff, so I might be a day late and a dollar short.

  20. Ken Hanke

    No reason at all you shouldn’t have weighed in. I only wished it had been in the Muscle Shoals thread in the hopes that it might have sparked a discussion there — more likely than where people are mostly discussing an arty cannibal movie.

    I don’t want to play too much on the age issue at The Carolina, though it is a factor and no mistake, but you’ll find it generally draws a more serious moviegoing crowd of all ages than the big corporate cookie-cutter theaters in town. That said, I still wouldn’t suggest tackling a horror movie there — or anywhere — on a Friday or Saturday night.

    I have not previously encountered the word cinematocracy, so you may be on to something.

  21. boatrocker

    Yes!

    Cinematocracy- my first patent.

    I can’t wait to let the dollah dollah bills roll in.

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