Toronto After Dark 2013: We Are What We Are Review
Horror’s breadth of vision is part of what makes it such a remarkable genre. Straight horror is steadily becoming an increasingly difficult label to affix to a genre film, as they tend to vary drastically in their thematic elements and tonal range. Horrific elements can range from blood, guts, and entrails to demonic possession, or the depths of depravity of the human race. We Are What We Are, Jim Mickle and Nick Damici’s reimagining of Jorge Michel Grau’s Somos Lo Que Hay (2010), embraces the versatility of the genre with a shocking story of an unconventional family.
Set in the Catskills, this neo-American Gothic film focuses on the Parker family. After the accidental death of their mother, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) are placed as the sole providers of the household. Their father, the formidable and domineering Frank (Bill Sage), enforces their sinister family tradition much against the girls’ wills. The hope of a normal life slowly slips away from the young girls as they are left in charge of the duties that once belonged to their mother: to slaughter, harvest, and consume another human being.
As a terrible storm strikes their tiny town, the resulting flood washes up what seem to be sparse human remains. Discovered by the local physician, Doctor Barrow (Michael Parks), a makeshift investigation ensues, and the extent of the Parker legacy is revealed.
The film’s hauntingly Gothic sensibility penetrates the macabre story from start to finish. However, rather than creating wretched, monstrous villains, Mickle and Damici have managed to create deeply disturbing portraits of complex and emotionally damaged people. There’s heart in this horror story, and though there is no ambiguity as to their transgressions, we’re still presented with human beings. Not demons.
There are no cheap scares in this film, as it’s the shocking truth that strikes the hardest blow. Jump scares are avoided, and atmospheric tension is used in its stead. The result is a compelling film that keeps you thoroughly engaged, and increasingly disturbed.
The film is rife with strong performances. Despite the gruesome subject matter, Ambyr Childers (The Master) and Julia Garner (Martha Marcy May Marlene) are hauntingly beautiful figures that glide through every scene with a surprisingly graceful solemnity. Bill Sage (American Psycho) is striking as a wounded and misguided man of faith. Most impressive of all was Michael Parks (Kill Bill, Planet Terror) as Doctor Barrow. His elegantly nuanced performance was one of the best I’ve ever seen from him, offering a beautiful emotive range.
For all of its beauty and subtlety, We Are What We Are most certainly closes on a feverish note. Adding an element of surprise to the otherwise melodically paced film only solidifies it as an unconventional horror. Tackling subject matter that’s been the focus of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Silence of the Lambs, both uniquely different depictions of cannibalism, We Are What We Are stands apart as a unique dramatic experience.