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