Published Oct 18, 2013With the equally elegant and horrific We Are What We Are, Jim Mickle (Mulberry Street) proves that he's one of the most exciting young directors working in the genre. This tense, unsettling and unexpectedly tender family drama evinces a filmmaker intent on honing his craft by challenging himself and popular notions of what a horror movie can be.
Terrence Malick isn't often invoked when considering genre cinema but even more than in Mickle's post-civilization vampire tale, Stakeland, this nearly wholesale re-imagining of Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau's 2010 picture of the same name captures the beauty, power and impermanence of nature with a patient poetic eye. In Mickle's extremely capable hands, the story of a family carrying on with a dark tradition after a great loss is transformed into a grim treatise on how children are repressed and manipulated by strictly enforced adherence to historical custom.
So it's no coincidence that patriarch, gruff, rugged and domineering Frank Parker (Bill Sage, adding a role almost as creepy as that of the baseball coach from Mysterious Skin to his resume), is an extremely devout man. He tightly governs his brood with the kind of unquestioned authority that can only be born of fear. Though all revelations unfold at an unhurried pace, the guarded anxiety in the eyes of his daughters, Rose (Julia Garner) and Iris (Ambyr Childers), speaks volumes about the family dynamic.
Initially, this can be attributed in part to the grieving process. The accidental death of Emma Parker (Kassie DePaiva) in the film's opening scene has a massive impact on the family for reasons beyond the resultant need to adjust to the permanent absence of a loved one. In this respect, We Are What We Are is a coming of age story as much as anything else, with Rose and Iris being forced to step up to or break free of the cycle they were born in to.
By having the girls face this moral crossroads during a torrential rainstorm, Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici, who has a small but memorable role as the overworked town sheriff, have pathetic fallacy working overtime. This relatively in-your-face metaphor is about as blunt as the film gets. The story itself unfolds at a leisurely pace and we learn everything about the characters through organic means; Mickle's direction is so assured that nothing need be explicitly stated.
Every component of the film works towards creating an increasingly unsettling and emotionally resonant whole. The performances, especially from those playing the members of the Parker clan—and Michael Parks (Red State) as the town doctor—are invested with subtle nuance, never losing sight of the realistic humanity behind the extreme situation being played out. Technically, Ryan Samul's cinematography is stunning and never less than wholly appropriate for contributing to the tone of insidious dread and conflicted, soul-crushing love permeating the picture. The same can be said for the evocative but never overbearing musical score composed by Phil Mossman and Darren Morris.
A work of uncommon taste, Jim Mickle's latest easily transcends genre filmmaking to stand as a great film by any measure. We Are What We Are is a hauntingly beautiful and though-provoking offering from a burgeoning auteur whose abilities continue to grow by leaps and bounds. (eOne)