Judge Gordon Sullivan wonders why there are no cannibals on reality TV.
The Parkers would like to have you for dinner.
There was a time when the theme of American culture was "progress" and "aspiration." It's where the whole concept of the American Dream came from: the idea that anyone, from anywhere in these United States could rise up and achieve greatness. The corollary to this narrative of progress, however, was that it required hard work. Somewhere in the last century or so that narrative dried up, and it's hard not to see a new one rising up from the ashes of reality TV programming. No longer is a narrative of progress and determination the guiding one of our culture, but instead a defiant cry is heard of We Are What We Are—and it is that authenticity that should be rewarded, not any determination. This same defiant spirit animates these characters, but much like reality programming, that spirit hides a dark secret, one best left uncovered.
Facts of the Case
The Parkers have a tradition, one now ruled by the imperious patriarch Frank (Bill Sage, Mysterious Skin). With his wife deceased, Frank relies on his daughters to help keep their rituals alive. However, a storm threatens to wash away what little cover the Parkers have enjoyed, and the noose tightens as their need to perform their rites grows.
There's nothing wrong with a healthy genre fusion. The comedy and horror genres have been meeting for decades, producing numerous classics. Drama and horror have successfully mated to give us The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby. The list could go on. From even this brief consideration, though, we can see what makes a successful genre hybrid. The first thing is balance: the best horror comedies (say Shaun of the Dead) pick a tone and stick with it, offering horror and comedy in a consistent ratio. The other lesson is that too many cooks spoil the broth: horror/comedy is cool, while horror/comedy/drama/mystery/noir is probably a bust. With too many genres, the result is either a mess, or a film that lacks a solid identity. We Are What We Are falls into the second camp.
On one level, We Are What We Are is a drama about a grieving family struggling with the death of its matriarch. The characters all try to deal with her loss while keeping the family, and its traditions (which, if it's not clear from the tagline and cover art, include cannibalism) alive despite a death. The emotional toll is obvious, and the cannibal touches just embellish a story of grief. On another level, the film is a mystery/thriller: the Parkers are not exactly law-abiding citizens and there's a tremendous tension between their need to continue their practices and their need to not get caught. The investigation and risk of exposure drive most of the plot. Finally, the film also draws on horror, from its gothic atmosphere to its story of country cannibals. Though not the gross-out cannibals of most exploitation-style flicks, the Parkers are certainly not presented as funny in their consumption of flesh. These disparate elements never quite gel. The tension of the mystery/thriller aspects keeps us from dealing with the dramatic tension of the grieving family. The moments that focus more on the family slow down the thriller/mystery plot too much to make that work. Finally, the horror elements are either too present, because they are unnecessary in the face of the thriller elements, or not present enough. A bit more gore and a few more scares might have tipped the balance in favor of horror, making this an easier watch.
Instead, we get 90 minutes of buildup for 15 minutes of payoff that never quite comes together. It's not an unwatchable mess, but it is the kind of film that feels like it would have been better if it were three different movies.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The best thing about We Are What We Are is the situation by which the Parkers risk detection: a storm is flooding their small town, washing up the bones of their victims. It's a delicious detail, the kind of gothic filigree that would adorn a Flannery O'Conner story. It should have been the basis for a kind of biblical reckoning, as nature slowly unmasks the unnatural Parker family. Sadly, that's not to be, but considering that it's a marked change from the 2010 Mexican horror film on which We Are What We Are is based, it seems more worth mentioning. Kudos also go to the film for at least trying something different from its predecessor by switching the gender roles. Although I think the idea of the family continuing in the face of the death of a patriarch is dramatically stronger, the film gets points for being a bit different.
We Are What We Are (Blu-ray) is presented with a 2.35:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer that's strong on detail and color saturation. The film's slightly gritty look is well-preserved, and black levels stay consistent and deep throughout. The overall look seems hampered by a smallish budget, but whatever weaknesses the image has seem to reside in the source and not this transfer. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is similarly impressive. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, while the surrounds get used for atmosphere (including that storm). It's not the most active track in the world, but it suits the picture perfectly.
Extras start with a commentary featuring the cast and crew. They're predictably pretty happy with the picture, sharing stories of the production and a few tidbits about its origins. We also get interviews with director Jim Mickle, along with stars Bill Sage and Julia Garner. They're not extensive, but do a fine job fleshing out their feelings on the project. Finally, we get a decent making-of featurette that mixes the usual production footage, clips, and interviews.
We Are What We Are isn't a terrible film; far from it. Instead, it feels like a missed opportunity, with too many different elements acting against one another instead of in concert. Though competently put together, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Horror fans are better off sticking with the Mexican original, though those who do pick the film up will find the Blu-ray worth a rental.
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