In the time of horror where found footage and fast-paced editing have replaced constructed set pieces and lingering dread, patience has become an invaluable asset to many of today’s independent horror filmmakers. And while filmmakers like Adam Wingard, Ti West and James Wan use patience as a way to help establish a visual style and atmosphere, director Jim Mickle uses it much differently, using patience as a tool of storytelling and drama to add weight to his genre projects. The result is often inspiring and effective, as especially evident in his newest film, We Are What We Are, now in theaters from Entertainment One, a calculated and subtly terrifying tale of modern day cannibals in a secular, traditional household. Most impressively, however, is Mickle’s almost-perfected way of instilling fear and disturbance into intelligent and elegant entertainment, teaming with a comfortable crew and a powerhouse of strong character actors to achieve such a feat.
We Are What We Are has a very captivating premise, as, following a major storm, a family of cannibals come to terms with the loss of their matriarch and the inherent threats to their secret lifestyle. Simultaneously, the storm itself uncovers damning evidence that is stumbled upon by a young Deputy and the Town Doctor, both of them interconnected to the family in remarkably different fashions. Part slow-burn horror tale, part crime mystery and part character study, We Are What We Are primarily tells these dueling narratives through the Town Doctor, Barrow, and the daughters of the cannibal family, Iris and Rose Parker. And though it’s through their perspectives the story is told, there are many layers of moral complexity and emotional anxiety apparent through the root, traditions and consequences surrounding the ritualistic cannibalism.
We Are What We Are is, without a doubt, Mickle’s most superbly crafted film to date, using polished, haunting imagery that paints the world as fantastic but grounds the same world in sordid realism. Advantageously working with cinematographer Ryan Samul, Mickle’s brilliant script, co-written by recurring collaborator Nick Damici, is brought to life in a beautiful, poetic light, constructing each frame of the narrative to have as much depth as the characters who appear in them. Mickle, who also serves as editor, drives his vision with both passion and persuasion, and as the film descends into darker places by the moment, the dramatic need works in parallel to the investment of the audience. And the original score from Jeff Grace, Darren Morris and Philip Mossman is rather breathtaking, rarely undercutting the action on-screen whilst establishing a storybook atmosphere and knowing when exactly to let silence be effective as it should be in a scenario as horrific as We Are What We Are.
However, one would be hard-pressed to find Mickle’s work here flourish as well as it does without the unforgettable cast at hand. Once again, Michael Parks steals the show, turning his natural charisma towards humility and desperation as a clearer picture of a very personal crime comes to light in his investigation of the Parker family. Almost equally as good is the family themselves, including a fascinatingly physical Bill Sage as the Parker’s patriarch. Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner are also extremely great in the film as the daughters, with the more emotional moments of pure existential dread coming from Garner and the more complex representations of responsibility and assimilation coming from Childers. The cast even excels in the smaller roles, with Kelly McGillis and Wyatt Russell both providing great performances amongst the supporting cast, and there are several wonderful surprises for keen horror fans throughout in the way of cameos, but never in a cheeky, referential way that lessens their acting in the film.
In a year of classically influenced horror making a righteous comeback on the independent scene, between Stoker, Berberian Sound Studio and We Are What We Are, there’s a certain promise for artful horror to also be intense, scary and dignified. Genuinely captivating and likewise unnerving, this film is unlike any the cannibal genre has encountered previously, and the determined eye Mickle and Samul gives this mortifying tale a reasonable view, as well as the commendable script from Mickle and Damici that helps these characters be believable and flawed in their own philosophies. Above all else, We Are What We Are is a simply great film; a wonderfully disturbing reward for the patient, open-minded genre fan.