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PARK CITY — In the deliciously seasoned genre treat We Are What We Are, director Jim Mickle and his screenwriting partner Nick Damici take the bones of the 2010 Mexican film of the same name, about a family of ritualistic cannibals, and reassemble them into an entirely different creature. Exchanging impoverished urban anxiety for rural creepiness in upstate New York, this reimagining serves up chilling contemporary American Gothic that slowly crescendos into an unexpected burst of gloriously pulpy Grand Guignol. You may never look at a bowl of beef stew the same way again.
Picked up for U.S. release soon after its Sundance premiere by eOne Distribution, the film is that rare modern horror movie that doesn’t simply fabricate its scares with the standard bag of postproduction tricks. Instead it builds them via a bracing command of traditional suspense tools — foreboding atmosphere, methodical plotting, finely etched characters and a luscious orchestral score that effectively plays against the ominous tone of some scenes while dramatically heightening the tension of others. This is polished film craft.
One of Mickle and Damici’s smartest moves is to flip the gender of the surviving family figurehead from Jorge Michel Grau’s original. Instead of losing their father at the start of the movie, it’s the Parker kids’ mother (Kassie Depaiva) who dies in an accident while picking up groceries in the backwoods Catskills town during the beginning of a torrential rainstorm.
That shifts the film’s dynamics to center on teenage sisters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner), who are expected to continue the woman’s sacred role of preparing the family meal. Staging the most macabre element of the story in scenes that evoke classic American family tradition — the pioneer look of the Parkers’ supper clothes, the solemnity of grace before meals, the folk songs heard playing softly — makes it all the more disturbing. It also helps convey that the arcane ways of this unwholesome brood go back a long time.
But while grieving patriarch Frank Parker (Bill Sage) refuses to change plans for their mysterious ritual, which begins with three days of fasting, Iris and Rose have increasing qualms. Their young brother Rory (Jack Gore) is just hungry. In a scene that’s both shockingly funny and horrifying, he confesses as much when he bites the thumb of their kind neighbor, Marge (Kelly McGillis), who babysits him during his mother’s funeral.
While the townspeople are busy dealing with post-storm flood damage, a distraught couple reports that their daughter has gone missing. At the same time, Doc Barrow (Michael Parks) performs an autopsy on Mrs. Parker that yields surprising findings about her condition. More inexplicably, his dog sniffs out what appears to be a human bone washed up in the creek. When the sheriff (Damici) shows little interest in his discovery, the doctor gets Deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell) on board. Back in town after training and eager to advance his high school crush on Iris, Anders is more than willing to go poking around the Parkers’ property.
Making the family a part of the community and not the usual isolated weirdos adds an interesting layer. This is particularly so with the two girls, whose blond hair and alabaster skin give them an angelic appearance. They can be abrupt and suspicious when cornered, but their extreme distress the first time we see them doing their grisly duty reveals how deeply troubled they are by the warped scriptures laid down by their father.
Both actresses are terrific. A sweet-faced beauty, Childers’ Iris shows the internal struggle of a girl who can picture a normal life, even if she somehow knows that prospect has been bred out of her nature. Garner — memorable in Martha Marcy May Marlene, which this film at times recalls in its stretches of glowering stillness — has a watchful intensity that foreshadows her resourceful behavior when the situation grows more dangerous.
Also serving as editor, Mickle modulates the tension with only one or two pardonable detours into ghoulish excess en route to the climactic carnage. He intercuts effectively among the family’s frictions, the doc’s investigation, and flashes of late 18th-century action prompted by Rose’s reading of the family journal.
The showdown between Doc Barrow and Frank is right out of a Western. In a role that easily could have toppled over into fire-breathing quasi-religious fanaticism, Sage drags Frank’s menace from the depths of a somber man, all but broken by the death of his wife. Yet his eruptions of monstrous rage are scary indeed. And Parks’ timeworn intelligence makes it seem less of a stretch that this small-town medic could be such an ace in the research department, his persistence fueled by lingering pain from the unexplained disappearance of his own daughter.
Among the smaller roles, Russell brings a nice relaxed manner to Anders’ touching scenes with Iris; Gore strikes the right balance in a child who’s both innocent and haunted, his young face transformed at times into a ravaged death mask; and McGillis brings salt-of-the-earth warmth to her brief appearances.
Russell Barnes’ production design and Elisabeth Vastola’s costumes cleverly support the evidence of the Parkers as descendants of another time and way of life.
The film was shot in locations still recovering in the wake of widespread flooding following Hurricane Irene in 2011, a reality echoed in the power outages that hit the town in this story after the storm. Cinematographer Ryan Samul casts a subtle graveyard gloom over the exteriors, bringing muted tones and a malevolent eye even to some gorgeous scenic shots.
We Are What We Are sustains not only suspense, but also internal logic. The Walking Dead showed that a comic book about a zombie apocalypse could yield muscular American survival drama with non-stereotypical characters. In a comparable way, Mickle and his collaborators have taken one of the more lurid horror subgenres, the predatory cannibal movie, and treated it with stylistic restraint, narrative integrity and even moments of gentle lyricism.
The film grips from start to finish, offering a slyly subversive reflection on clans — cultists, fundamentalists, or just plain crazies — who impose their diseased thinking from one generation to the next.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Park City at Midnight; eOne Distribution)
Cast: Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Jack Gore, Kelly McGillis, Wyatt Russell, Michael Parks, Nick Damici, Kassie Depaiva, Odeya Rush
Production companies: Memento Films International, in association with Uncorked Productions, The Zoo
Director: Jim Mickle
Screenwriters: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle, based on the screenplay “Somos lo Que Hay,” by Jorge Michel Grau
Producers: Rodrigo Bellott, Andrew D. Corkin, Linda Moran, Nicholas Shumaker, Jack Turner
Executive producers: Emilie Georges, Tanja Meissner, Brett Fitzgerald, Mo Noorali, Rene Bastian, Jacob Pechenick
Director of photography: Ryan Samul
Production designer: Russell Barnes
Music: Philip Mossman, Darren Morris, Jeff Grace
Costume designer: Elisabeth Vastola
Editor: Jim Mickle
Sales: WME, Memento Films
No rating, 105 minutes.
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