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Sooner or later, it's bound to happen—some holier-than-thou movie critic will write about how Jim Mickle is too artistically gifted, nuanced, and Malick-esque to stay within the horror film genre. Hell, someone may have already done just that. It would be utter bullshit, of course, since horror shouldn't be ghettoized in that way—even though it often is. In the eyes of the genre's biggest supporters, filmmakers like Mickle should be the rule, not the exception, yet here he is, once again setting himself further apart from his scary movie peers with the remarkably measured and amazingly executed We Are What We Are, a remake of the 2011 Mexican film about a family of cannibals.
It's a testament to Mickle's reputation that when news broke about his version of We Are What We Are, there weren't any disgusted outcries from the horror community. Usually, when remakes are announced, pitchforks get sharpened and torches get lit and readied for the march upon whichever producers and/or filmmakers have signed on to bastardize yet another fright flick. In We Are What We Are's case, you'd think there would've been anger over the fact that it's a remake of a movie that's barely even two years old.
But Mickle's involvement gave the project an immediate credibility, as well as a security blanket. All horror fans needed to do was re-watch his exceptional and underrated 2011 vampire film Stake Land to remind themselves just how advanced his chops are, and just how seriously he takes genre fare. With its beautifully shot, rural cinematography, patient storytelling, and character-over-gore sensibility, Stake Land—co-written by Mickle's steady collaborator, and close friend, Nick Damici—is an antidote for people who've grown weary of bloodsucker cinema (no) thanks to Twilight, True Blood, and The Vampire Diaries. In Stake Land, the vampires are ferocious, inhuman-looking, and genuinely terrifying—no teenybopper pin-ups wanted.
Upon its release, Stake Land represented a giant leap forward for Mickle, whose 2006 debut, Mulberry Street, shows great potential but suffers from low-budget effects and familiar zombie movie structure—instead of the living dead, it's an outbreak of rat-ification in New York, with Big Apple residents turning into part-human, part-rodent creatures and a small band of uninfected characters barricading themselves into an apartment building. Although it's scary at times, Mulberry Street feels limited by its narrow concept. It's a quintessential "first film," the byproduct of a novice director remixing his favorite movies or fiction in order to finally complete his or her introductory motion picture. Think George A. Romero mining from Richard Matheson's I Am Legend to create Night of the Living Dead, or David Cronenberg mining from Night of the Living Dead to make Shivers. By the time he shifted gears into Stake Land, though, Mickle had gained the confidence needed to expand his scope, flesh out unique ideas, and make a small-budgeted horror flick seem like a not-so-modestly priced Badlands by way of Bram Stoker.
We Are What We Are is Mickle's best work to date, an unnervingly quiet and un-showy chamber piece about a Central New York brood—comprised of the stern, God-fearing daddy, Frank Parker (Bill Sage), his teenage daughters Rose (Julia Garner) and Iris (Ambyr Childers), and younger son, Rory (Jack Gore)—whose deep-seeded religious beliefs bring out their darkest impulses. Whereas Mexican director Jorge Michel Grau's We Are What We Are set his family's flesh-eating ritual against the backdrop of hopeless urban decay, Mickle and co-writer Damici inject Christianity and Paganism into the mix—the Parkers abide by an 18th-century custom known as Lamb's Day, for which they must stay away from food and prepare the body of a human victim through a Pagan-like, sacrificial rite.
After the sudden death of their mother, though, Iris and Rose begin questioning their father's methods and influence. They want nothing more than to experience the feelings that normal teenage girls do, like first love, and sex, but they're too loyal to, and, more importantly, scared of, their dad to outrightly defy his authority—up until a certain point, that is. On the story's periphery, meanwhile, is the local mortician, Doc Barrow (Michael Parks), who's haunted by the disappearance of his daughter, and, as a result, compelled to investigate the discovery of human bones found near the Parkers' home.
For a movie about cannibalism, We are What We Are is relatively bloodless. Mickle saves the gruesome money-shots and viscera for the film's climax, and, please believe, it's more than satisfactory for all you gorehounds out there. Yet had he decided to keep the bloodshed off-screen, Mickle's excellent film would still qualify as the year's best American-made horror work thus far—he's not the kind of genre filmmaker who thrives on violence, spilled-out guts, and elaborate homicides to give his films any shred of singular value.
What makes We Are What We Are so disturbing registers before any of its ghoulishness kicks in. Through its delicate and multilayered script and the cast's across-the-board superb performances, the film presents a family unable to steer clear of inevitable tragedy—by adhering so closely to their religious ideals, no matter how obviously harmful they are, the Parkers can't avoid the final nightmare that concludes We Are What We Are. Heartbreakingly vulnerable and sad, Iris and Rose practically yell through the screen, "Please, someone save us," while the loving but one-track-minded Frank seems determined to keep his children on the path to destruction. It's what his god demands of him.
The film's domestic drama is captivating, and, credit due to Mickle and Damici as screenwriters, keeps on heading into surprising and often shocking directions. And for that, We Are What We Are is a supreme achievement in characterization, one that's superior to most of what we've seen this year so far, no matter the specific category or superficial prestige factors. That Mickle's a horror guy is an added bonus for the genre's most discerning lovers. He's given them a film to use as a foolproof example whenever people question their taste in cinema. Those close-minded naysayers might ask, "Why would you want to watch people eat other people?" Because, smarty-pants, there are filmmakers like Jim Mickle out there handling such potentially exploitative material with refined, one-of-a-kind maturity. Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs finally has a worthy successor.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)