Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on the new internet machine
When I first thought about why there seem to be so many cannibalism stories in horror movies, I wasn’t sure why that would be the case. There are plenty of stories about people getting eaten by something, but getting eaten by humans is its own thing. There seem to be a few of them every year, and while we will get some set in exotic locales (Cannibal Holocaust, for instance), in a lot of ways things are more disturbing when the setting is more familiar and current. We Are What We Are is a case in point. Admittedly, the cannibalism is a kind of surprise moment in the film, but it happens relatively soon, so it’s not a huge spoiler.
What makes We Are What We Are different is not that it’s a cannibal movie or that it’s a cannibal movie that takes place in the current day. No, it’s the reason for the cannibalism. Most of the time, it’s about need, or about someone being severely deranged, or (as in the case of a movie like Ravenous) about power. In We Are What We Are, the cannibalism happens for religious reasons.
We are introduced initially to Mrs. Parker (Kassie DePaiva), who collapses during a rainstorm, falls into ditch, and drowns. Crippled by grief, her husband Frank (Bill Sage) leaves identifying the body to his daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner). The local coroner (Michael Parks) is required to perform an autopsy, and he discovers evidence of early-onset Parkinson’s disease.
What we learn soon into the film is that the Parkers have particular religious rituals that seem to stem from an old book. With the mother gone, now we are told that Iris as the eldest daughter must step up and complete the yearly ritual. This ritual starts with fasting, something that is difficult for Rory (Jack Gore), who is too young to really understand what is going on. We discover that the book is actually a diary from the Parkers’ ancestor, we tells of a time when the family went through a terrible time of hunger. That they resorted to cannibalism to survive should not be a shock based on what I wrote earlier. Where all of this comes full circle is the realization that the Parkers’ religious ritual involves fasting themselves and ending their fast by eating stew made from, more or less, one of their neighbors who they have kidnapped.
There is, of course, a lot more to it than just this, but that’s the main through-line of the story. The torrential rains along with the death of Emma Parker are what set the plot in motion. Emma’s diagnosis of Parkinson’s soon becomes a realization of something far darker for Doctor Barrow. Human bones begin washing down the local creek, and they show signs of having been cooked and scraped with knives. A little bit of research turns up kuru, a prion disease similar to mad cow that comes specifically from the eating of human flesh. Realizing that it’s likely that Emma Parker was suffering from kuru, and putting that fact together with the fact that is own daughter is missing puts Barrow on a murderous path. Throw in a local deputy (Wyatt Russell) and a nosy neighbor (Kelly McGillis), and things come to a head rather quickly.
We Are What We Are has a bit of violence (naturally), but surprisingly little gore for a movie about people putting each other on the menu. The goal here is much more about the deeper horror of what is going on and the religious rituals that the family has continued to play out over more than a century. Aside from a moment in the middle and the very end, there’s surprisingly little actual violence on the screen. Most of it is implied or suggested. Because we know what is happening soon enough, there has never been a more disturbing shot of a bowl of stew, although a moment later in the film makes those shots even more disturbing.
It’s the very end of the movie, the last few minutes, that don’t really work for me. It’s almost as if the writers got themselves backed into a corner, either by sticking too closely to the original version of the film (a Mexican film called Somos lo que hay) or by straying too far from it—I don’t know because I haven’t seen it. We get actions at the end that simply don’t seem to jibe with everything else that we’ve seen.
There’s a lot to like with We Are What We Are, but the story being told has some problems. Had we been told that the Parkers lived in the area for a few years, I would accept a lot more of what happens. That the family managed to last this long with their yearly cannibal ritual seems a bit of a stretch.
Why to watch We Are What We Are: Do we ever really have enough cannibalism stories?
Why not to watch: I’m not sure the ending really works.