We Are What We Are, a 2013 sorta-remake of a Mexican horror movie from 2010, is not a bad movie. Not by any stretch of the imagination whatsoever. But I’d also say one would be hard pressed to accurately describe it as “good,” either. It’s one of those film experiences that is so unsettling, from conception to execution, that saying, “Hey, I liked this movie,” runs the real risk of alienating you from friends and family.
This is, most definitely, a very technically sound film, with wonderful performances from the cast—particularly Julia Garner as Rose, the middle of three children in the central family. It also does a great job of taking a major plot point the audience undoubtedly already knows about going in, and making its official unveiling on screen still seem like a moment of great importance. The music? Wonderful—This is a horror film with a score that would seem more at home in a movie like The English Patient, with a very dramatic, sometimes soaring and occasionally even romantic tilt to it, and yet it’s obviously a deliberate choice that somehow works: our central characters obviously don’t think they’re living a horror movie—at least not until the end—and the music that surrounds them reflects that. And the few times where we are hit with blood and gore, the camera doesn’t flinch, leading to maximum effect, and a couple of times near the film’s conclusion focuses right in on the carnage, without reveling in it, as if to say (and forgive the turn of phrase), It is what it is.
I suppose that, in a way, it is the ultimate compliment to the film’s vision that it is such an uncomfortable experience. In the opening scenes, we are presented with a seemingly innocuous sequence of a woman going to the market. A close-up on a meat grinder later, with no other visual or audible clue to let us know something is amiss, it is clear that a bad… something is going on. And when, moments later, this same woman suffers an apparent seizure and drowns in a mud puddle, the camera’s focus on her last moments isn’t reveling in the scene, the way, say, Saw seems to delight in a victim’s hand being pierced by hypodermic needles, but rather seems to say, This is something that is happening, and here it is until it is done.
And later, when the film’s final act begins to come together, and our main characters sit around a dinner table eating a decisively unnatural meal, the camera’s lingering on the contents of their plates, and on the action of bringing food from plate to mouth, isn’t celebratory—it isn’t saying, “Wow… isn’t this gross???” Instead, its focus is more about acknowledging that yes, this is what this movie is about, and though we’re not holding a high school pep rally over it, we’re not going to hide it, either.
While the movie’s overall positives, from a technical and filmmaking perspective, greatly outnumber its drawbacks, those drawbacks are, nonetheless present, in varying degrees of jarring distraction. First, as unique as this film strives to be, it still frustratingly ticks some of the genre boxes: There’s an inexplicably creepy little kid who, while his sisters seem utterly miserable to be living and dressing like pilgrims in their family’s bass-ackwards religious heavy hand, appears right at home wearing pre-colonial garb, and who bites a woman’s finger and then gives her a creepy little smile as he says, “I’m hungry.”
That scene, and the boy’s characterization overall, is very disconcerting and effective on the small scale, but, again, seems at odds with the characterization of the film’s world overall. And there’s the lengthy, seemingly-contractually required sequence of the protagonist learning the truth of the Big Evil through quiet, solitary research—in The Ring, it’s reading a psychiatrist’s case notes; in most ghost stories, it’s going through old press clippings; and here, it’s studying medical disease books. And, of course, a family pet meet its unfortunate end, though the poor little doggie does make it until about ten minutes before the ending credits roll. But the most unfortunate occasion of a horror trope being bowed to involves the death of a side character.
I have, intentionally, been going very light on plot details here, because the less the viewer knows going in, the better the overall experience is. It’s no secret, though, to say this is a story about a family of cannibals. And the film, to its credit, explores the why: it’s a generations-long religious rite that, once a year, the “tribe” spends a few days fasting, followed by eating a person (the film uses much more holy-sounding language and reasoning, obviously, but there it is). And, as such, the main characters, especially the family patriarch, aren’t portrayed as particularly evil. Indeed, as the title says, We Are What We Are.
All that goes out the window, though, when for no reason other than it serves as a shock moment, the father character kills his oldest daughter’s love interest, while they are literally in the act of having sex. In a vacuum, this scene can serve as a metaphor for the domineering (but with righteous intentions) father who’s terrified of seeing his daughter grow into a woman. But in the context of the film as a whole, it simply doesn’t work—it’s been established, to this point, that he only kills when he has to, and to serve his family’s religious ways. Indeed, early in the film, when he finds the victim for this year’s ceremony, the camera takes great pains to show us just how reluctant he is to capture his victim. So, for an hour before killing his daughter’s boyfriend, the father has been portrayed as a hyper-religious fanatic who nonetheless takes no joy in the mechanics of his family’s traditions, yet when he commits this latter murder it is with apparent glee and with no real reasoning behind it, other than shock.
All told, though, for a genre that produces preciously few good titles—2016‘s mini renaissance of top-quality horror films is more an aberration than a sign of things to come, I believe—We Are What We Are is a solid entry, though it’s a shame that its subject matter will likely turn off a large number of people at the outset. And though I’ve heard from other circles discussions on possible deeper meanings—that it’s a commentary on religious fanaticism, or the dangers of patriarchy rum amok—for me those deeper points aren’t explored fully enough to definitely be there. Instead, what we undoubtedly are left with is a film that is beautifully shot and scored, with on-point performances, and is skillfully directed, to all add up to being a solid horror movie. About eating people.
Because that is what it is (there’s the turn of phrase again). And that’s okay. But to give deeper meaning to it undercuts the very real worth that is there. A good story—especially, I believe, in the horror genre—goes one of two directions: Either the plot itself is used as a vehicle to explore deeper themes, or the story is just so artfully and technically well constructed that it stands on its own. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, both undeniable classics of film generally, and horror specifically, spoke about the uncertainties of parenthood—and motherhood in particular—in a way that few films, within or without the genre, have attempted since; but The Blair Witch Project was simply one of the first movies to tell its actors to hold the camera themselves and pretend the whole thing’s a home video, with no deeper point. And that’s where We Are What We Are exists, as well. I believe it attempted, in small spots here and there, to become a film like The Exorcist, or, for a more direct analog, like the very tonally similar The Witch from earlier this year; but in the end it exists as “just” a Blair Witch Project. And as long as the viewer can accept it as such, it stands as a quality film.