The eating of human flesh onscreen isn't so disturbing when it's a vampire or a werewolf gnawing on your fellow man, but when it's one person dining on another, it becomes downright creepy. Even the plight of the Alive survivors who, understandably, chomped on frozen stiffs to keep themselves going in the high Andes, induces a shudder, and there's still reports of ritual cannibalism among remote tribes in Borneo. But what if it was next door, and a longstanding family tradition executed in the name of God?
Meet the Parker family. They feel like lost cast members from Little House on the Prairie, yet they live in the modern, remote suburbia of upstate New York. Mom (Kassie Depaiva) handles everything culinary, from the ritualistic harvesting to the careful trimming and lengthy rendering process, which results in a savory stew, but right off the bat, mom has a seizure in the middle of a flash storm, vomits up buckets of blood, and is gone. Her grisly duties then fall to her daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner). After mom's death, however, father (Bill Sage) declares a period of abstinence, which allows for the macabre outer sheen of the film to recede and the edgy backstory to come to the forefront: how the Parkers came to their generations-old practice, the girls' struggle to come of age (a time of sexual awakening for Iris), and dad's maniacal mood swings and Parkinson-like fits.
The film, directed by Jim Mickle — who amused with the quirky vampire hunter saga Stake Land — is a fairly loyal remake of the 2010 Mexican film of the same title. That cult staple was set in the impoverished barrios of Mexico City, and Mickle's relocation to the drab Catskills brings home the grim affect with greater visceral resonance. He also leverages hurricane season (the 2011 storm Irene was upon the area when he shot the film) as a clever plot device, as the rising waters from the ongoing storms begin to unearth and expose the bones of the Parkers' past feasts.
Little of the barbaric practice makes it onto the screen for much of the film, but the traces are ever there, be it the missing person reminders that pop up in conversation or an information flash (reminiscent of Prisoners), the muffled whines that come from the Parkers' root cellar, or the inquisitive coroner (Michael Parks) who starts putting together the pieces — literally.
If the plausibility of that sounds a bit hard to swallow, Sage adeptly sells his role as the righteous propagator and controller. Childers too lends credibility as a young woman torn between wanting love and a normal life and familial obligation to her aggrieved father and siblings. It's her burgeoning courtship with the bashful deputy (Wyatt Russell) and the coroner's personal need for answers that become the catalyst for the hellish denouement that will not sit well with the squeamish.
In the mix too is Kelly McGillis, barely recognizable as the frumpish next-door neighbor who shows Parker's young son (Frank Gore) compassion, administering bedside TLC and remedies to the boy bedridden with shakes and a fever. She thinks it's a just common cold from the bluster and rain outside, but it's hunger from the abstinence — a point that's driven home when the anemic-seeming towhead suddenly chomps down on her thumb with frenzied lust.
For an indie cult-horror film, We Are What We Are succeeds modestly much in the same way You're Next did. It transcends the genre's trappings and makes the most of its humble resources with confident craftsmanship and nuanced subtlety that embosses character and demonstrates care. It's not going to rescript the genre by any stretch of the imagination, but for those who have a yen for such things, it is a sating bowl of gruesome gruel.