starring Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Michael Parks
screenplay by Nick Damici and Jim Mickle
directed by Jim Mickle
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. It begins with a leaf falling into a river and a woman, confused and trembling, declaring to a shop owner that she's fine but that the damp will sometimes get into her head. Jim Mickle's smart, downcast We Are What We Are looks to Nature as not just insensate, savage, but also the first testament to a greater power. It locates the source of religion in the need to control Nature, more specifically to find meaning in the capricious-seeming meaninglessness of the universe. It implicates the ugliest, most selfish aspect of Nature in the founding of the United States, mining resonance in the idea of "Manifest Destiny"--in the process giving women a starring role: positions of real power in which they're depended upon for their strength rather than exploited for some idea of their weakness. We Are What We Are enacts a matriarchal melodrama in that way; connecting the feminine aspect to Nature is nothing new, of course, but the picture does so in a way that feels true and is in its own way touching. It opens with a quote that seems Biblical (later, one of the characters will ask another, "Is that from the Bible?"--it's not then, either), which serves the multifoliate purposes of establishing the mood of the piece, clarifying that religion is born in the breast of man, and establishing a woman as the artifactor of the Word. The woman with the damp in her head, a mother, falls into water and drowns--the first of several images of baptism in the picture, and one that predicts the flood imagery running throughout. Water suggests change, unearths things, washes them clean. It's all heavy stuff, I know, yet the thrill of We Are What We Are is that it's about all these things without being obviously about any of it.
What We Are What We Are is obviously about is the matriarch of the Parker family dying one day, leaving her husband (Bill Sage), little boy (Jack Gore), and two teen daughters, Rose (Julia Garner) and Iris (Ambyr Childers--a revelation), to mourn her and, it's revealed, provide for themselves. The timing of the death is bad, see, because it's almost that time of the year and Mother is the only one who can do what's necessary. Indeed, it's something only the women of this family do. In flashback, we learn that the reason for this is because the men proved themselves too weak for the task. Meanwhile, a downpour and the resultant flood uncovers graves, washing bones downriver to be discovered by sad old coroner Doc Barrow (Michael Parks, magnificent), who, every night, looks at a picture of a young woman and asks it where she is. Doc gets handsome young deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell) to help him search around the tributaries in their Catskills home, donning waders and panning for the sad relics of lost girls, left in the earth and the water. Meanwhile, a kindly neighbour-woman, Marge (Kelly McGillis), checks in on the father and his kids, and notices that he's started to develop a tremor in his hand right around the same time that Doc begins to figure out it wasn't Parkinson's the mother suffered from, but maybe this one disease that people in this one part of the world, practicing a very particular religious ritual, used to suffer.
Based ever so loosely on Jorge Michel Grau's minor festival hit cannibal flick of the same name, Mickle's picture is so different, so carefully- wrought and observed, that it's best just to think of it as its own thing. Consider a moment, delicate and beautiful, where Deputy Anders pauses at the truck window after the mother's funeral, searching for something to say to Iris, who, we instantly understand, he maybe loves. It's apparent in his indecision and his caution, and again when she offers to lend him a pair of her father's socks because Deputy Anders has been wading around in the stream and his have gotten wet. It's one of those perfunctory subtexts we come to expect in movies like this: the ostensible tension, the way out for the heroine, perhaps--the way out of certain narrative responsibilities for the filmmakers, certainly. What We Are What We Are does instead is observe a very real exchange between a young man who aspires to something greater for himself and a young woman with a secret who wants something more for herself, too. An essential foundation for the piece, it keeps the film grounded in the idea that women bear things in relationships, take on the burden of keeping their families together and, in this instance, the responsibility of maintaining rituals and customs. Iris is the queen of their little backwoods matriarchy, but she carries the larger weight of archetype.
When it comes more than halfway through the film, the reveal that Iris is now the one responsible for killing and preparing a woman held captive in the Parkers' basement, someone they know, for the purposes of cannibalism--not for sustenance, but for tradition--is more a statement of how women, these women in this family, were chosen for their strength and their will towards survival where the men had failed. Mickle ties these images together, the flooding and inundation, with Iris's sexual awakening--the unearthing of graves an indelicate metaphor but no less effective for it. We Are What We Are finds that the basis of all our rituals and traditions is founded in base desires and the cruel inconsideration of nature, every one of them. I was reminded during the film of the frustrating conversations I have with Christian friends whenever I broach the topic of transubstantiation: the peculiar two-step that happens when the literal liturgy mixes with their own repulsion towards the idea of cannibalism, ritual or otherwise. See, they say, people believe it but they don't really, they do and they don't, and it doesn't matter what the preacher says. But I say the real magic is that tradition has somehow made cannibalism just fine, don't mind if I do, a little off the thigh? When the movie ends, it ends at the dinner table, naturally, and it is one of the finest, most uncomfortable moments in film this year, because it is the literalization of the Word. And when, after everything's transpired, a book, an old one, is passed around to be read and interpreted and held as a totem against the insensible universe, it all suddenly becomes clear. We Are What We Are is the best kind of horror movie: Horror that the head feels for the body; it's about transformation and transgression, and, when all's said and done, it's about family.