Review: We Are What We Are

Introducing We Are What We Are to an audience at the Milwaukee Film Festival, producer Jack Turner said that when it recently played to 1,500 people at the Deauville Film Festival in France, half of the audience gave it a standing ovation while the other half called the director the devil. There was no such split Stateside, at least at this particular screening.

A remake of a 2010 film from Mexico of the same name, the new version is set in Delaware County in New York, in a rural area that seems far removed from civilization. During a torrential downpour, the matriarch of the Parker family drives into town to purchase supplies from a general store. Immediately it is clear that something isn’t right. She is behaving strangely, and after returning outside to her vehicle falls and hits her head before tumbling down into shallow water, drowning quickly. 

Her sudden and unexpected death throws the Parker’s into turmoil. Mr. Parker (Bill Sage) takes action swiftly so as to not disturb a long-standing family tradition. The family has just started a three-day fast that will culminate in a big meal. The details remain murky. The Parker’s are devoutly religious and frequently mention God, but nothing is said of their denomination and they never talk about attending church.

With the mother dead, the oldest daughter must assume major responsibilities. Rose (Julia Garner) appears to be around 18. Rose and her younger sister, Iris (Ambyr Childers), are not thrilled about taking over for their mother. They have serious doubts about family traditions and vow to make drastic changes after this year, for their sake and the sake of the youngest Parker, Rory (Jack Gore).

For now, though, there is much to do.

Co-writer and director Jim Mickle (Stake Land) expertly teases out what is going on with the Parkers, mixing in flashbacks to the 1780s and the beginning of their tradition. It is clearly abnormal and something they need to keep secret. The sisters talk of not being like other people, and that is the least of it. Town physician Doc Barrow (Michael Parks) notes that while three girls from town have gone missing in recent years, the number jumps to more than 30 if you include a radius of 50 miles (his own daughter is one of them). Mr. Parker happens to have someone locked up underneath a shed on his property.

While the reality of the Parker family and their tradition isn’t exactly top secret, part of what makes We Are What We Are so effective is the way in which information trickles out very slowly and deliberately, and the less one knows going in, the better the experience will be. Some of what the audience learns comes from Doc Barrow and his increasing suspicions, while other bits and pieces come from the Parkers as we watch them prepare for the big dinner. As more is learned, the sense of dread becomes all-consuming, and it is perfectly clear that this will not end well (the conclusion is equally surprising and startling).

Suspenseful and captivating from start to finish, boasting outstanding performances and a haunting, dreary look that perfectly complements the somber tone, this is easily one of the best genre movies of the year, and a must-see for any fan of slow-burn horror that leaves a lasting impression. You won’t soon forget the Parkers. 

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