***1/2 (out of four)
Both an excellent choice for a movie and a lousy choice for dinner and a movie, “We Are What We Are” turns family tradition into a disturbing, sustained descent into an inherited nightmare. It might be the most searing, bizarre portrait of a household since the 2010 Greek masterpiece “Dogtooth.”
Director/co-writer Jim Mickle (cult hit “Stakeland”) expertly achieves candlelit religious horror without the need for an exorcism or other watered-down scare tactic. “We Are What We Are” focuses on Iris Parker (Ambyr Childers of “The Master”) and her younger sister, Rose (Julia Garner), who assume new responsibility for their father (Bill Sage) and little brother, Rory (Jack Gore), after their mother passes away. The Parkers live on the outskirts of an already small upstate New York community, which has seen several young women go missing in recent years.
Rory also thinks there’s a monster living in the basement, but he’s not allowed to go down there.
Somewhat recalling “Martha Marcy May Marlene” (which also co-starred Garner), “We Are What We Are” shudders with the terror that can come from things being done a certain way because that’s the way they’ve always been done. “I just wish that we were like everyone else,” Rose confesses to her sister, and you can’t blame her. I don’t want to say much more, but know that a family gathering around a table to eat soup can be a very, very unsettling thing to watch.
Clearly, many real people maintain less-horrifying customs, faith-based or not, behind closed doors. For the Parkers, it’s hard not to wonder how it has gone on for so long, the local police’s limited resources notwithstanding. Still, “We Are What We Are,” adapted from a 2010 Mexican film, offers a lot to chew on—eww, sorry—in crafting a story of shell-shocked people that’s likely to leave viewers feeling dazed and lost as well. In this portrait of family history, there is no true escape.
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