By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
6:50 PM EDT, September 26, 2013
If American Gothic tales intrigue, if a taste for the macabre tempts, the Parkers in "We Are What We Are" are certain to haunt.
Starring Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner, what they are is a family of cannibals. Present day, tucked into a forgotten corner of the Catskills, they are as marked by entrenched poverty as their dark gastronomic rituals.
Director Jim Mickle's latest, like his 2010 "Stake Land," is about much more than horror. Or he at least mixes his blood with contemporary issues to create the requisite chill. With co-writer Nick Damici, he continues the economic thread found in "Stake," dropping the politics in favor of observations about how isolation from a media-saturated world is mind-bending in its own way.
Loosely inspired by the Mexican film "Somos Lo Que Hay," which had its urban teen brothers getting pulled into twisted family traditions, the filmmakers wanted to come up with an American companion piece. The films share some elements, mostly meals, but they diverge in ways that will make for an interesting DVD double feature at some point, if you have the appetite for it.
There is a sense almost immediately that "We Are What We Are" is taking us to a place out of time. The pacing of every move, every look, every line is slowed ever so slightly. There is Frank's (Sage) obsession with watches. There are the vintage dresses the teenage girls Iris (Childers) and Rose (Garner) wear. Even their names evoke the past. The youngest, Rory (Jack Gore), seems the most modern of the bunch, his plea for Snap Pops cereal a quirk of nature — or would that be nurture in this case? Regardless, hunger hangs like a cloud over the house.
Outside, the rain pours and is deemed partly responsible for the death that starts things off. Emma Parker (Kassie DePaiva), the matriarch of the family, will never make it back from a trip to the local grocer, where the meat is still ground by hand.
Like much in the movie, the director, working as he has from the start with cinematographer Ryan Samul, opts for images that evoke ideas rather than graphically display them. It's a nice touch that keeps working its way under your skin as things at the Parkers go from bad to worse.
The rain washes up secrets the family's been keeping for generations, the long-held rituals guiding the moves and countermoves as life unravels. There is the family "bible," which the girls have reason to reference, that outlines the philosophical whys for what they do. The killings are treated like religious — and increasingly regretful — sacrifices, the meals that follow reverent.
Doc Barrow (Michael Parks) is the man ensuring the tension. Results from his autopsy of Emma, the bones that began to wash up along the river's edge, the unsolved cases of the missing, including his daughter, start to seem less of a coincidence.
As Doc builds his case against the Parkers from the outside, the changing family dynamics up the turmoil from within. It is, after all, a household of teenagers, and with mom gone rebellion is in the air.
Like the family, the film occasionally comes apart at the seams. But Childers and Garner are absolutely mesmerizing as Iris and Rose. Both use soulful eyes and faces nearly devoid of expression to remarkable effect. Watching them go about their tasks, whether watching their brother or preparing a fresh body for rendering, there is a strangely empty gracefulness that is eerie.
"We Are What We Are" suggests the filmmakers are definitely developing a certain style that bears watching. The debates they wage about the priority of whatever is happening on screen are low key and carefully constructed. Right or wrong is not so much the issue as how the imperatives of any given environment sets events in motion.
Mickle never seems in a hurry, so there is time to take note of the detail. "We Are" is rich in that regard. From the dungeon where dark deeds are done to the debris floating down the storm-churned river, it all conspires to make it nearly impossible to resist the slow build to disaster.
Most of the gore is saved for the final showdown, and it's a doozy. Bloody and horrific, but like the rest of "We Are What We Are," it's designed to leave you wondering whether redemption or damnation awaits.
'We Are What We Are'
MPAA rating: R for disturbing violence, bloody images, some sexuality, nudity and language
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles
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