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January 22, 2017

We Are What We Are

by Franz Patrick


We Are What We Are (2013)
★★ / ★★★★

The Parker family of five has a yearly tradition called Lambs Day: fasting for several days and then having to eat human flesh to mark its end. But chopped up people parts are not readily sold in supermarkets and so the patriarch, Frank (Bill Sage), must kidnap an unsuspecting person, usually a woman, and store her in the cellar. His wife, Emma (Kassie Wesley DePaiva), is in charge of the actually killing, cooking, and serving the soup. However, when Emma dies suddenly during a storm, the eldest of the three siblings (Ambyr Childers) takes on her deceased mother’s responsibilities.

Directed by Jim Mickle, “We Are What We Are” is rather uncommon in that it is a remake that improves upon the original, Jorge Michel Grau’s “Somos lo que hay,” but not by much. Though screenwriters Mickle and Nick Damici make the correct decision to use the same plot but tell a different version of the story, it is not extreme enough to invoke a primal gut reaction that should be immediately present in horror movies tackling the subject of cannibalism.

Part of its limitation involves the camera shying away from physicality. That is, in a picture like this, the camera must not be afraid to look at body parts—dead or alive—and remain unmoved as they receive whatever action necessary. Instead, it takes the approach of suggestion. When a limb is about to chopped or cut, the camera lens either rests on the person executing the action or we are introduced to the next scene with a significantly lower level of tension. To be fully engrossing, the violence must be shown—not all the time but enough to break out of mere suggestions.

I enjoyed that the screenplay bothers to explain a little bit about the history of Lambs Day, why it is important for the Parkers to continue to practice the bizarre ritual. The original Lambs Day dates back to 1782 and is broken into several sections. Perhaps it might have been more effective in terms of flow to have one major flashback. By breaking the history into segments, the technique diminishes the power of the rising action, particularly Doctor Barrow (Michael Parks) finding human bones near his place of residence. He suspects they might be coming from upstream.

The relationship between Iris and Rose (Julia Garner) ought to have been fleshed out more, if you will. While the actors do a very good job looking sullen and just about the tip of breaking point, their characters’ personalities are so steeped in mystery that I found them rather inaccessible. The sisters’ struggle to defy their father is the center that holds the picture together but we are not made to understand how their minds work or how they plan to break out of the twisted tradition and live freely.

“We Are What We Are” is reminiscent of Bill Paxton’s “Frailty” in style—which is beautiful—but there is no sense of real dread created from the doctor slowly figuring out the Parkers’ dark secret. The movie feels like it is on Valium which is a shame because given the right surge of energy, it might have turned out to be a different beast altogether.

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