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In the opening scenes of We Are What We Are, the matriarch of the Parker family rushes to her truck in a downpour, tense and in fear. She soon collapses, striking her head before falling into a ditch, where she meets a watery end. Left without a wife is gruff Frank Parker (Bill Sage), a man of few words and little patience for his teenage daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) and young son Rory (Jack Gore). The Parker family at first seems to embody the stereotype of a fervently religious, Catskill Mountain family, but their story is much more complex. Knowing much more about the film will lessen its impact, but Director Jim Mickle does a decent job remaking a 2010 Mexican film into this chilly domestic horror film. Handsomely shot and well acted, We Are What We Are tightens the noose around viewers' necks before burning down the gallows in its over-the-top finale. The film has sparks of black comedy and some chilling imagery but never quite fleshes out its discussion of survival and tradition.
If you want to watch the film without prior knowledge of its narrative cogs, read no further. Simmering just below the melodramatic surface is an interesting take on the Jeffrey Dahmer variety of haute cuisine. With their ranks suddenly down 20 percent, the Parkers find themselves literally nearing extinction. Years after Parker ancestors turned to cannibalism to survive 18th-century famine, Frank strong-arms his family into keeping tradition alive. Their small mountain town has more than its fair share of missing persons cases, but the Parkers infrequently kill to stock the table for their yearly ritualistic blood feast. The consumption of human flesh is more than a delicacy; it recreates a ritual performed centuries earlier to save the family from death. This unnatural ceremony must be performed by a woman, thus the death of mom means Iris and Rose are next at bat.
Of note is the Parker family's place amid a relatively normal small-town society. Frank is unfriendly and peculiar but hardly viewed as a threat, and the kids attend school in town. A male suitor comes calling on Iris, who returns the affections, and Rose grumbles about chores and listening to her father. The girls are acutely aware of but push to the back of their minds the upcoming ritual, and only young Rory is oblivious to the family drama. Complicating matters are a local doctor (Michael Parks) searching for his missing daughter and a busybody neighbor (Kelly McGillis). Frank and his brood aren't exactly on the same page about the direction in which the family is moving, and We Are What We Are poses interesting questions about what impressionable adolescents might do in a similar situation.
Childers and Garner are excellent and bear the brunt of the dramatic weight. The most interesting thing about the film is the morality seesaw that tips from normal life to murder and back again for the girls throughout the film. At points they're just like any other teenagers, but at others, well, you'll just have to watch and see. There is some pitch-black humor here, like when Rory bites his babysitter's finger and explains that he was simply hungry. You kind of know exactly where the film is going from the opening scenes, and even the box art spoils a lot of the mystery. The doctor's research, displayed in an overly obvious montage, is somewhat unnecessary, but I enjoyed Frank's retribution for its camp value. The original Mexican film is apparently structured differently, and gives the cannibal family different motivations. I'd be interested to watch that take on the story and see how it stacks up. We Are What We Are is interesting if somewhat contrived, and the uneven tone isn't always an asset. The film's persistent rain storm serves as either the catalyst for the horror or a deus ex machina that one hopes will wash it all away and out of our memory.
PICTURE AND SOUND:
The 2.40:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer is an imperfect but faithful reproduction of the source material. The digitally shot film exhibits a softer, muted appearance, with lots of neutral colors, greys and blacks, and subtle texture. Detail is usually good, and there are a few pops of violent crimson when necessary. Black levels vary somewhat, and there is a fair bit of digital noise that pops up in darker scenes.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is perfectly adequate, and ambient effects are pleasantly prevalent throughout the film, from the torrential rain to insect noises to crowd noise. Dialogue is crisp and clean, and both range and clarity are good. The spare score is nicely realized. English SDH subtitles are included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release is packed in a standard Blu-ray case, which is wrapped in a matching slipcover. Extras include An Acquired Taste: The Making of We Are What We Are (55:09/HD), a thorough making-of, Interviews (16:18/HD), and the Theatrical Trailer (2:32/HD). You also get a nice Audio Commentary with the director and several cast members.
An interesting domestic horror film, We Are What We Are asks more questions than it answers, but it's still a handsomely shot and nicely acted diversion. The Parker family seeks to carry on long-outlawed family traditions in modern small-town society, and the film suggests that parental and societal influences are opposing forces. Rent It.
William lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.