Hello, everyone! It’s been almost a month since I’ve posted on this blog, but do not despair, for I’ve returned. Today I watched a uniquely chilly film called We Are What We Are, directed by Jim Mickle, who also directed Cold in July and Stakeland. We Are What We Are is a family psychological drama with horror elements that has the aesthetics of a refined backwoods western and the suspense of a thrilling mystery. A movie influenced by too many genres can turn out muddled, but Mickle’s clear, cold direction keeps the film focused and compelling from start to finish.
Synopsis: After the Parker family matriarch dies in a raging flood, sisters Iris and Rose are forced by their father to preside over the family’s ancient tradition. Trapped by the flood, their unstable father, and the need to care for their little brother Rory, Iris and Rose have no choice but to accept the grisly responsibility and to pray for forgiveness. Meanwhile, Dr. Barrow, still grieving for his missing daughter, grows suspicious of the Parker family and sends the young Deputy Anders to investigate their family secret.
From the first scene, I was blown away by the quiet beauty of the movie. Mickle’s interpretation of a small town in Delaware county is a somber one, where the rain pours in unending sheets and the sunlight is too weak to permeate the gray air. However, there is beauty in every frame. The film comes across more as a visual narrative than a spoken one, with both foreshadowing and dramatic reveals shown rather than told. A leaf flowing downstream in the first minutes of the movie connects to a striking scene later in the film. A simple tube of lipstick is repeatedly used as a symbol of death. The motif of light, as a protection, rather than a utility, haunts the story with its absence. Except for the moments of gore, which are splashed with warm, red light, the whole movie is bleak and pale. Mickle presents the Parker’s environment as an external representation of their grief.
The story takes place over three days, from Friday to Sunday, which the Parker’s called “Lamb’s Day.” Until then, they fast. The reason for these events is explained gradually throughout the movie, thoughtI can’t call the explanation that satisfactory. It is better to watch the movie without drawing on the reasons behind the character’s actions for guidance.
The movie draws parallels between the Parker’s idiosyncrasies and those of ancient religions. The rituals leading up to “Lamb’s Day” wouldn’t be out of place in a movie about Orthodox Easter or Yom Kippur. Taken together, we see the Parkers as a family trapped in antiquity. In public the girls wear jeans and denim jackets, but in their house, they dress like 19th century prairie girls. It’s no coincidence that the preparation for “Lamb’s Day” coincides with a flood of biblical proportions, or that any sense of modernity is wiped out with the electricity. Their father emphasizes the nature of God’s forgiveness, while somehow being blind to the wrath being thrown down upon them.
The relationship between Frank Parker, the patriarch of the family, and the two daughters is a complex one. His dominant influence is present in their clothes, their actions, even their relationships with outsiders. He is a relic of another age, and another example of how Mickle likens the Parker family to those of ancient times. But even though the daughters Iris and Rose seem to support him, it is clear they are chafing against their chains. Everything he does he claims is to protect their family, yet his actions are the very thing that is killing them. At what point does tradition for the sake of tradition become harmful? Should a child question their father? For us, these questions may seem outdated, but for the Parker family, its these questions that decide their fate.
In addition to the fine aesthetics, Mickle has a good handle on the amount of gore he shows in the film. Except for the overly violent ending scene, the gore is restrained, even beautiful at times, like in an episode of Hannibal. I particularly liked the scenes in which Iris and Rose prepare for their “tradition.” Mickle took a pretty disgusting montage and made it palatable and enjoyable to watch. All of the finishing touches had the same restraint, including the music, which was beautiful to listen to.
Final Consensus: We Are What We Are takes a conventional horror story and turns it into a beautiful, restrained work. The casting and acting is well-done, and the script, though vague, serves more as support for a visual narrative. Director Jim Mickle has created a horror movie with a story universal enough for any viewer to enjoy.