Based on the 2010 Mexican film of the same name, We Are What We Are is an interesting entry into the Gothic horror genre, which seems to be going through a renaissance. Largely skipping the need to disgust audiences which seems to be the motto of the Saw and Hostel series, We Are What We Are relies mostly on setting up a perverse mood that crawls under your skin.
The film opens as we see Emma Parker (Kassie Wesley DePaiva) go through her shopping at the grocery store. Seemingly terrified of everything around her—from a meat grinder to other customers—and as a storm begins to form, she runs home and suffers a mindless accident that kills her.
In her house, her young children wait for her arrival. Her eldest daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) patiently wait for her to get home as they remind their little brother (Jack Gore) that they are not supposed to eat anything and offer him a glass of milk, which he accepts begrudgingly. As we may understand at first, the Parkers are following some sort of spiritual fasting and their mother is supposed to bring them back what they need in order to satisfy their hunger. What’s obvious from the beginning is that none of the children seem content with this tradition.
As the daughters receive news of their mother’s death we meet their father, the stern Frank (Bill Sage) who takes the news with disturbing dignity and acceptance. He instantly reminds his daughters that it’s their turn to take on their late mother’s responsibilities and follow through with their ancestral rite: the preparation and consuming of a meal consisting of human flesh. The film takes its sweet time to reach this revelation, but judging from the clues it scatters from the start, it’s acting as some sort of pro-vegan essay that makes every kind of meat onscreen look like the most perverse thing that ever existed.
We learn through flashbacks how Frank’s family began this tradition countless years before, and while it never becomes clear why they became so adamant to follow its perpetuation, we come to understand that the film’s most important metaphor is its questioning of what makes religious traditions matter. Why should these children follow rules they do not understand and which they actually find repulsive? Why do the elders insist on forcing their offspring to take part in traditions that are detrimental to their own personal growth?
Cleverly directed by Jim Mickle, who refuses to go for the easy way out, We Are What We Are becomes a disturbing allegory that evokes extremist Christian groups from the American Midwest that insist on invading other people’s rights to choose. Of course, here we have cannibals that go out and literally murder people to bring back home and use as methods of absolving their flaws, but the plot’s insistence on highlighting the nonsensical dogma makes it a most relevant horror movie.
Sadly, it can’t help itself from being plagued with a few clichés that seem necessary in genre films, like the Parkers having a know it all neighbor (Kelly McGillis) who always knocks on the door when something gruesome is about to happen, or giving one of the daughters a love interest (Wyatt Russell) whose boyish good looks and naiveté make him too obvious a target for one of the villains.
With that said, thanks to the work of director of photography Ryan Samul, We Are What We Are is often so visually beautiful to watch that we can’t make sense of the horrors we are watching. Like a depraved Babette’s Feast he carefully shoots the meals with the distinctive eye of someone who knows how to find aesthetic values in the truly horrific. With a palette largely consisting of reds, greys and whites, the film’s visuals make for a fascinating contrast between what we are seeing and what we feel. In the end, We Are What We Are turns out to be much better than you’d expect it to be, if only because it’s all too conscious of the idea that terror lies not in what we can interpret and fully understand, but within the mysteries of human behavior.
We Are What We Are is presented in a great DVD edition by Entertainment One. It’s advisable to remain indifferent to a blurb on the packaging that deems that the ending is “the most shocking you’ll see this year”, because the film is too smart to allow its weight to rely on a single scene. Bonus features include an hour-long making of documentary in which we go behind the scenes of the production, as well as interviews with the cast and a movie trailer.