By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Sundance Review: We Are What We Are

Spoiler alert: This review contains a significant spoiler. If you don’t already know (or want to know) what it’s about, move along.

As heavy rains and flooding hit a small town in the Catskills, a middle-aged woman collapses, spewing up blood, and drowns in a ditch. Thus Jim Mickle’s stunningly shot We Are What We Are, a re-imagining of Mexican director Jorge Michael Grau’s 2010 film of the same name, sets in motion its tale of the Parker family, headed by patriarch Frank (Bill Sage), a fierce, controlling, humorless man who rules over his three children with religious fervor and a devotion to maintaining a macabre family tradition.

Given that this is a reinvention of the earlier film, it’s not really much of a spoiler to say that the Parker’s skeleton in the closet involves the annual ritual “sacrifice” and eating of human flesh. With Mother Parker dead, the burden of prepping the main course for the family’s “Lamb’s Day” dinner passes to Frank’s older daughter, 17-year-old Iris (Ambyr Childers). Iris bravely steps into the role of family matriarch, but her younger sister, 14-year-old Rose (Julia Garner), obedient to her father’s will on the surface, inwardly struggles with wishing their family could just be normal and rebels in subtle ways, sneaking her brother food during the fast and wearing her curly looks unbraided.

Being forced to kill and prep the family’s meal using their mother’s handy-dandy cannibal cookbook forces the two sisters to come to terms with just what their family really is. While much younger brother Rory (Jack Gore) is innocent and blissfully unaware of the family’s ritual of sacrifice as anything other than a holiday that forces him to fast for two days in preparation, their mother’s death forces the girls to face who they really are and what their family history and mythology requires of them. It’s a bit like how it might feel to be a kid coming of age on a rural farm who’s forced for the first time to to slaughter and butcher an animal, rather than having it set on the table already prepared.

Further complicating matters for the Parkers is the torrential downpour that’s causing flooding in and around the town, consequently eroding the ground and unearthing bits and pieces of the family’s secret. The town doctor and medical examiner, Doc Barrow (Michael Parks), whose own young daughter has been missing for some years, uncovers evidence in a creek bed that makes him suspect what may have happened to her, and cross-cutting between the scenes of Lamb’s Day prep and the good doctor getting ever closer to learning the truth effectively build tension as the film progresses. Meanwhile, handsome young deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell) keeps poking around to see the lovely Iris and finds himself drawn into the doctor’s hunt for more evidence, and kind-hearted but nosy neighbor Marge (Kelly McGillis) can’t seem to stop snooping around at inopportune times. With the family’s long-held secret on the verge of undoing everything, Frank, who’s own mental condition isn’t on what you might call solid ground, starts to unravel even more.

In spite of its rather macabre subject matter, We Are What We Are isn’t so much a horror story as it is a coming-of-age tale about these two sisters whose circumstances require them to either accept the role put upon them upbringing, or betray their father and dead mother. It’s gross to be a cannibal, sure, but if that’s all you’ve ever known, and your crazy-ass, controlling father wraps it all up in a neat package of deep paternal love, religious fervor and the belief that the sacrifice of another is necessary to preserve your own life, you might also find it a little complicated to unravel the moral dilemma once you were old enough to question your parents and desire to make your own choices.

There are some terrific performances in this film, most notably from Childers and Garner, who move seamlessly from wide-eyed naivete to fierce protectiveness. And man, is this a gorgeous, well-put together film, with frame after carefully composed frame of black and blue color palette sumptuously filling the screen, light and shadow effectively evoking mood, some nicely literary use of metaphor, and a score that moves things along without being heavy-handed or manipulative. The contrast of the beauty with which the film is shot and its macabre subject matter creates its own sort of tension that quite effectively serves the story.

In some ways, We Are What We Are reminded me a bit of Giorgos Lanthimos’ 2009 twisted family tale Dogtooth; while it doesn’t quite hit that film’s watermark for shocking originality, it does explore similar ideas of what happens when children raised in religious isolation, with bizarre family rules replacing normalcy, the coming-of-age and teenage rebellion of children threatening the domination of the parents. Much as the siblings in Dogtooth were hopelessly warped by their bizarre upbringing, so too have Iris and Rose been shaped by theirs. Tonally different though the two films may be, at their core they say this: There is human nature, and there is human nurture, and the impact of the latter may be the harder of the two to overcome. Understanding this makes the film’s conclusion, which could arguably be said to be a bit of a misstep at odds with the rest of the film, make its own weird kind of sense.

2 Responses to “Sundance Review: We Are What We Are”

  1. Samson says:

    Nice review. It was very helpful to my research. Thanks and keep up the good work.

  2. Bellami Watson says:

    This is a well-done review. It is thoughtful and engaging. I especially appreciate your mention of color palette and location, and delving into the overarching theme of the movie–coming of age. Good work.

Quote Unquotesee all »

What do you make of the criticism directed at the film that the biopic genre or format is intrinsically bourgeois? That’s the most crazy criticism. That’s an excuse for not engaging with the content of the movie. Film critics sometimes, you know, can be very lazy.

Come on, formal criticism is valuable too. But I’m amazed when this is the thing they put in front of the discourse. My situation is that I’m dealing with a highly explosive subject, a taboo subject that nobody wants to deal with.

Karl Marx? Yes, this is the first film ever in the Western world about Marx. And I managed to make an almost mainstream film out of it. You want me at the same time to play the artist and do a risky film about the way my camera moves and the way I edit? No, it’s complicated enough! The artistic challenge — and it took me ten years with Pascal to write this story — was the writing. That was the most difficult part. We were making a film about the evolution of an idea, which is impossible. To be able to have political discourse in a scene, and you can follow it, and it’s not simplified, and it’s historically true. This is the accomplishment. So when someone criticizes the formal aspects without seeing that first, for me, it’s laziness or ignorance. There’s an incapacity to deal with what’s on the table. I make political films about today, I’m not making a biopic to make a biopic. I don’t believe in being an artist just to be an artist. And by the way, this film cost $9 million. I dare anyone in the United States to make this film for $9 million.
Raoul Peck on The Young Karl Marx

“The Motion Picture Academy, at considerable expense and with great efficiency, runs all the nominated pictures at its own theater, showing each picture twice, once in the afternoon, once in the evening. A nominated picture is one in connection with which any kind of work is nominated for an award, not necessarily acting, directing, or writing; it may be a purely technical matter such as set-dressing or sound work. This running of pictures has the object of permitting the voters to look at films which they may happen to have missed or to have partly forgotten. It is an attempt to make them realize that pictures released early in the year, and since overlaid with several thicknesses of battered celluloid, are still in the running and that consideration of only those released a short time before the end of the year is not quite just.

“The effort is largely a waste. The people with votes don’t go to these showings. They send their relatives, friends, or servants. They have had enough of looking at pictures, and the voices of destiny are by no means inaudible in the Hollywood air. They have a brassy tone, but they are more than distinct.”All this is good democracy of a sort. We elect Congressmen and Presidents in much the same way, so why not actors, cameramen, writers, and all rest of the people who have to do with the making of pictures? If we permit noise, ballyhoo, and theater to influence us in the selection of the people who are to run the country, why should we object to the same methods in the selection of meritorious achievements in the film business? If we can huckster a President into the White House, why cannot we huckster the agonized Miss Joan Crawford or the hard and beautiful Miss Olivia de Havilland into possession of one of those golden statuettes which express the motion picture industry’s frantic desire to kiss itself on the back of its neck? The only answer I can think of is that the motion picture is an art. I say this with a very small voice. It is an inconsiderable statement and has a hard time not sounding a little ludicrous. Nevertheless it is a fact, not in the least diminished by the further facts that its ethos is so far pretty low and that its techniques are dominated by some pretty awful people.

“If you think most motion pictures are bad, which they are (including the foreign), find out from some initiate how they are made, and you will be astonished that any of them could be good. Making a fine motion picture is like painting “The Laughing Cavalier” in Macy’s basement, with a floorwalker to mix your colors for you. Of course most motion pictures are bad. Why wouldn’t they be?”
~ Raymond Chandler, “Oscar Night In Hollywood,” 1948