The apropos opening shot of the moody We Are What We Are shows a pristine spider web gently swaying in the breeze. It’s fitting because the characters at the center of the horror-thriller are trapped in the sticky snare of ghastly family tradition, and also because the film is so deliberate in its weaving of itssomber tale. Tension builds gradually, and the screws are turned so skillfully we become equally entranced by the American Gothic atmosphere and appalled by the shocking narrative.
The Parkers live on the outskirts of a secluded town in the Catskills, and though somewhat reclusive, are functioning members of the small community. Mother Emma is on a run to the general store when she has a seizure and drowns in a ditch. Domineering patriarch Frank (Bill Sage) appoints his teenage daughters Iris and Rose (Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner) as replacements for their late mother in preparations for “Lamb’s Day” – a longstanding family ritual. Doc Barrow (Michael Parks) notes some suspicious symptoms during Emma’s autopsy, and when he finds a bone on a riverbank downstream from the Parker place, he’s convinced something isn’t right… perhaps something that could explain the several missing persons from the area, including his daughter.
The details of the ritual are best left for you to discover as the film unfolds. Besides, the particulars of the proceedings aren’t nearly as important as how director Jim Mickle and his co-writer Nick Damici reveal their history and weightiness. Taking the premise from a 2010 Mexican film of the same name, Mickle and Damici use the customs to comment on primal themes that include familial bonds and religious zealotry. We Are What We Are isn’t a transparent attack on organized religion, but there’s no hiding its warnings of unbending devotion to archaic rules twisted to fit an incongruous present. The Parkers read passages from a tattered book – the family bible, if you will – that lays out their history and is the basis for their practices that date back to harsh Colonial times.
Frank is already too far lost in fanaticism to separate the fear of stopping what he’s doing from its needlessly brutal horrors, but his daughters aren’t so sure. The girls are emotionally tortured, stuck between loyalty and breaking the vicious cycle. One of them asks “What if we just stop?” – partly concerned about what would happen and partly hopeful they could run away with their little brother and start over. Great performances make this warped family dynamic work. Sage injects restrained menace into everything Frank Parker says; he’s calm and deliberate with his words, contradicting deeply sunken eyes and an omnipresent quiver in his hand. Childers and Garner give the sisters an air of resigned dread. Childers is especially convincing in Iris’ dealings with mutual crush and local deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell). As long as she’s Frank Parker’s daughter there’s no hope of being in a happy relationship with Anders, and how Childers expresses that pain in a pivotal scene is gut wrenching.
The best performance comes from 72-year-old Parks, whose doctor is our access into this story of outsiders. The lines in his face speak as much as his soft, worn-out vocal tone. During a bloody climax when he verbalizes questions we’ve already had implicit answers to, the resonance is still there. It’s a credit to Parks and to the filmmakers, who use a slow burn to explore their subject sincerely instead of dragging their way to an artificial revelation and final shock. The finale is intense and horrific, combining gory spectacle with emotional liberation.
Distress comes not only from the acts of depravity depicted, but the reasons behind them. We Are What We Are lingers long after the ambiguous final shot and appeals to our most fundamental of questions – nature versus nurture chief among them. It also doesn’t hurt that the nuanced dogma is enveloped by a taught, tense genre film.
The Blu-ray includes a making of feature, interviews, and cast and crew commentary.