The principle of “Show, don’t tell,” is every bit as essential to film as it is to literature. Given film’s role as a visual medium, it could easily be said it’s more essential. When it adheres to this storytelling maxim, Jim Mickle’s gender-flipped remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s well-received 2010 horror flick, We Are What We Are, is a powerfully expressed, atmospheric gem. If only it didn’t flinch from time to time, seemingly unable to resist the temptation to make sure the audience “gets it.”
Following the death of matriarch Emma (Kassie Wesley DePaiva), the reclusive, small-town Parker family begins receiving more attention than they’re comfortable with. The curiosity of the town doctor (frequent Quentin Tarantino collaborator, Michael Parks) is piqued when an autopsy of Emma generates more questions than answers—and the human bones washing up on riverbanks and yards during the relentless flood aren’t helping matters. Even if it’s obvious to the audience what, or whom, is behind the grisly mystery—remake or no—the slow reveal trickles out beautifully, thanks primarily to the gorgeous cinematography, courtesy of Ryan Samul and his use of deep focus that makes the candlelight amidst the rain-spattered windows feel alive.
Coupled with the skillfully crafted shots, the brilliantly understated performances of grim Parker father (Bill Sage) and daughters Iris and Rose (Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner, respectively), tease out a film that plays more like a Gothic family drama than horror. It works so well that when the script calls extra attention to its carefully placed details, it’s as jarring as the violence after the turn in the third act finally explodes onscreen. There are countless occurrences of dialog practically (and, in the case of chronicling the family history, actually) narrating what the camera has already very capably shown, and they’re all distracting. The heavy hand behind the screenplay could have used a good smack in the editing room every time it refused to let the film’s visual language have the last word.
Still, despite the occasional failure of the film to let the atmosphere and subtle performances stand unadorned, We Are What We Are is an impressive entry from director Mickle. Following Mulberry Street and Stake Land, he’s exhibiting more and more confidence as a high-order craftsman of genre fare. There’s so much unmistakable talent behind and in front of the lens here that there’s no reason to think his next won’t build its case even more adeptly than this one, and perhaps finally allow the evidence to speak for itself.
Director: Jim Mickle
Writers: Nick Dimici, Jim Mickle
Starring: Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Michael Parks
Release Date: Sep 27, 2013 (Limited)