Fantastic Fest Review: 'We Are What We Are'

A hard rain’s begun to fall on the Catskills as shaky, spacey Emma Parker (Kassie DePaiva) leaves the general store, begins to cough up blood and takes a fatal blow to the head upon falling to the ground. It’s a shock to the community and the family she leaves behind, but for Frank Parker (Bill Sage), daughters Iris and Rose (Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner) and son Rory (Jack Gore), her death causes a strain on their long-held traditions of dining upon locals they’ve abducted.

What the Parkers don’t know is that the region’s flash floods are due to bring some literally buried secrets to light, and the rest of Jim Mickle’s “We Are What We Are” concerns their struggles to maintain a sense of discretion amid domestic infighting and religious tradition. An update of 2010’s Mexican cannibal film, Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici (who cameos as a sheriff) have swapped the genders of all involved, ditching the original’s gallows humor and urban setting in favor of emphasizing American backwoods fundamentalism -- the Parkers are devout Christians -- and Iris’ coming-of-age concerns in particular. (The recurring visits by Wyatt Russell’s young deputy are colored by her high-school crush on him.)

The usual detective B-plot is smartly converted into a coroner’s investigation headed up by Doc Barrow (Michael Parks), whose own missing daughter serves as not only a critical narrative mystery but offers a subtle alignment of grief-stricken circumstances between his performance and that of the mournful, increasingly demented Sage. As the unsettled patriarch, the latter anchors the film with a gruff intensity, and as a boy too young to know better, Gore’s work serves the plot more than the character. The emotional burden instead falls on Childers and Garner, with each effectively anguished as they weigh between themselves the value of family loyalty over their increasingly troubled consciences.

Mickle (“Stake Land”) also works in some wintry parallels to the Parker’s ancestors, desperate in the wilderness of the late 1700s and establishing the initial sins of the father to be passed down through the generations, but the story generally sticks to the present-day tensions between curious authorities and this guarded clan. Even when the clouds part, a constant sense of dread pervades the proceedings, assisted in no small part by Jeff Grace’s score and Ryan Samul’s cinematography. Given the subject matter, that tension suitably sidesteps the inevitably gruesome matters at hand until a remarkably queasy, emotionally satisfying finale. (Bonus points for the use of practical gore effects.)

That value placed equally on literal and figurative blood is a substantial boon to Mickle’s take on the material, resulting in a character-minded remake that is equally tense, beautiful and sad. It’s a marked improvement on his previous films, it ultimately proves more compelling and resonant than its predecessor, and it should count among the stronger American horror films of the year.

SCORE: 8.6 / 10

"We Are What We Are" opens at the Landmark Sunshine Theater in NYC and the Landmark NuArt in LA on September 27th.