Cannibalism in horror films generally relies on gore to make its point.
It’s a trope that I’ve never understood. The horror of eating another human being is implied. All I have to do is picture chowing down on someone’s leg and I start dry heaving. I don’t need to see the details in how the leg was removed to understand that it’s disturbing.
We Are What We Are is a refreshing entry into cannibal lore. A remake of the 2010 Spanish film, this American version takes cannibalism to the backwoods.
Again, this has been done before. What makes We Are What We Are different is that these are not the stereotypical hillbillies that you would expect to see in a film about cannibals. They are not hunting down every single person that comes to their door or invades their space. The children travel to town for school. They’re not even living totally alone; they reside near a local trailer park and are fairly friendly with their neighbour, Marge. What makes this family frightening is its patriarch.
Bill Sage delivers an amazing performance here as Frank Parker. Frank and his children, Iris (Ambyr Childers), Rose (Julia Garner), and Rory (Jack Gore), live in the woods, grieving the recent loss of their mother. The older girls are old enough to understand that with their mother gone, they will be asked to participate in their annual family tradition – consuming human flesh as their Donner party age forefathers did. God ordains their consumption of the flesh, according to Frank, but his daughters are not so sure. Frank is not only grieving, but convinced that some recent symptoms that he is experiencing are proof that God wants them to eat human flesh. What makes Frank frightening is his absolute and unshakable belief that he is doing the right thing. The mental weight that this puts on his daughters, who are trapped with very few options, is what separates this from sensationalism. This is a cannibal film that actually delves into the emotional toll of murder.
After the girls participate in their first murder, they are one hundred percent sure that it is wrong. Iris’ belief that they need to get out is solidified, and as she breaks down she tells Rose that it wasn’t anything like what she thought it was. She knew deep down that this was true, but had been able to push this guilt down when it was her parents performing the act. She had removed herself from it ever since she was old enough to understand what was happening. Her new understanding about herself is that she can’t do this the rest of her life. She wants more, and has been keeping her crush at arm’s distance because she has been unable to see a life for herself where her father doesn’t make all of her decision.
Between the scenes of the horror on the Parker home front are the police procedural parts that will uncover the cannibalism. Because the Parkers only kill approximately once per year, there haven’t been enough missing people for anyone to really notice a pattern. There is a sense of bleakness and resignation around this implied fact, as the town has been slowly dying. People seem to be leaving unexpectedly for the possibility of work elsewhere. There is an underlying feeling of despair in all of these scenes that suggest that the town is dying, and there is nothing but death waiting for these children if they stay in it.
The performance of Michael Park as the town doctor who begins to notice some causes for alarm saves what are some fairly predictable twists. There has been a recent storm, and the remains that the Parkers have hidden so well begin to wash downstream. It isn’t long before the good doctor begins to piece together the odd findings in Ma Parker’s autopsy and the strange bones that have begun appearing near his home.
By keeping the focus solely on the Parkers day to day life, you find yourself rooting for the children to escape, rather than brand them cannibals that deserve to be caught. We Are What We Are manages to boost the tension as the Parkers get closer and closer to being exposed. It’s a slow burn, but never boring. There are a couple of fairly gory kills, but there is more suggestion than anything. The audience is meant to look past the horror of the act of cannibalism itself and realize what it means for the lives of these kids, which is beyond awful. An engaging film full of great performances with a truly unexpected ending, it’s worth the ride if you like your cannibalism with more story than gore. It takes a rare film to make you root for people eaters, and We Are What We Are manages to do just that.
Check out the trailer from eOne Films: