Fantastic Fest 2013: Jim Mickle's Twisted Tale 'We Are What We Are'
by Jeremy Kirk
September 26, 2013
In 2010, a Spanish cannibal movie called We Are What We Are dazzled Fantastic Fest audiences with its crazy tale of a family of cannibals living out their traditions in an urban setting. With any good, foreign horror movie, a remake quickly followed, and that same crowd is able to feast on it this year. But the real coup in this American remake is the voice behind it. Jim Mickle has had a strong hand in some of most powerful horror films of the last 10 years. Mulberry Street and Stakeland are deep, emotional dramas that just happen to be set in worlds running rampant with horrors. His We Are What We Are, then, is no exception, and Mickle's ability to draw emotion like blood from a stone is, once again, on display. Read on!
Once again co-writing the screenplay with Mulberry Street and Stakeland lead Nick Damici, Mickle supplants the family of cannibals from a bustling apartment building to a small town and rural backwoods of the Catskills. Here we are introduced to the Parkers, a family - father, mother, two daughters, and young son - with long history in their cozy, little town. The patriarch of this family, Frank (Bill Sage), is a stern teacher and parent, loving his family with all of his heart but understanding that there's nothing more important than holding up the family traditions. As a torrential rainstorm pounds the area, the mother of the family, Emma (Kassie Depaiva), drops dead of a mysterious illness. Grieving, Frank nonetheless remains undeterred in his plans for he and his two daughters to carry out their enigmatic ritual. But a local doctor (Michael Parks) is beginning to put some pieces of the puzzle revolving around the family together.
With We Are What We Are, Mickle takes the very best approach a strong filmmaker can take when reimagining or remaking or whatever you want to call it. His version of this story takes the very basic ideas and themes and uses them to craft his own story. He and Damici's screenplay is a powerful one, continuously building the emotion between grieving father and his two, teenaged daughters right along with the intensity. At times, We Are What We Are slows to a simmer, burning just enough to let you know it's not out yet. That fire is about to kick up again, and when it does, the impact is going to be stunning. Mickle and Damici handle the more horrific side of the story.
And stunning applies to the imagery at work here, as well. Mickle collaborates with cinematographer Ryan Samul once again, and, as with Mulberry Street and Stakeland, the atmosphere and tone of We Are What We Are is injected into every bucolic, American Gothic shot we're given. It's pretty bleak in those Catskills, the mirages of falling rain and dense wood layering an incredible backdrop to the Shakespearean affairs in the foreground. Even when the suspense slows to a crawl, there's something magnificent and darkly beautiful to look at.
The performances at work are also an insanely strong driving point. Mickle and Damici's incredibly powerful screenplay deserves an equally powerful patriarch at the forefront, and Sage is that patriarch. He's scary in how quiet and resolved he can be, but, as we're shown relatively early in the film, he's able to explode into heated sincerity on a dime. As brutally effective as Sage is, the actresses playing Frank's daughters are subtly significant. Ambyr Childers as Iris and Julia Garner as Rose are spot-on, Childers working that subtle distance she's feeling towards her family well. Garner, on the other hand, plays the perfect daughter to Frank, quiet but ready to pounce if the situations call for it. Parks plays a dynamic detective in the film's B-story, keeping it just as engaging as the main story. Kelly McGillis, working with Mickle again after Stakeland, shows up as a friendly neighbor to the Parkers, a pleasant role that gives the Top Gun actress a welcome return.
Everything cog at work in We Are What We Are moves every piece of the overall picture to amazing results. Mickle and Damici have turned We Are What We Are into a resoundingly dramatic family mystery, its rough edges revealing themselves to very bloody results. This is a cannibal film, after all, but one in which the impeccable taste at work leaves you craving seconds. Incredibly engaging, as scary as it is intense, and with one helluva good cast, We Are What We Are is not only one of the best horror films of Fantastic Fest 2013, it's one of the best, gothic horror films to come along in a while.
Jeremy's Fantastic Fest Rating: 9 out of 10
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