We Are What We Are
Posted by Holly
We Are What We Are
Director: Jim Mickle
When thinking about cannibalism in fiction, most people will immediately draw from the image of Hannibal Lecter and his unique brand of imbuing terror into his presence. Make no mistake: Hannibal is scary, but he represents a very particular kind of cannibal, one that glides with such ease through social convention that he can easily hide in plain sight. There is something to be said, however, for the flip side of the coin: the characters who are truly misfits.
We Are What We Are tries its hand at representing such characters in the Parker family, a cannibalistic family unit that have been outsiders from the very start. Their situation only intensifies once Frank Parker’s wife is found dead from mysterious causes, and he becomes consumed by grief. In his grief he commands his two daughters, Rose and Iris, to take over the religious duties of the family, which were previously their mother’s responsibility. The girls are reluctant, and begin to question everything they’ve been taught up to this point.
The Parkers offer a sharp and pointed departure from the image of Hannibal Lecter, in all of his social graces. They are a visibly impoverished family, their home run down and cramped. Unlike the elegant feasts Hannibal made of his victims, what the family eats resembles highly unappetizing gruel; they are the working person’s vision of cannibalism. Moreover, they are a picture of how the plight of poverty and religious extremes can intertwine.
There is scathing commentary in this film about religious fanaticism, especially in how it intersects with the treatment of women. Rose and Iris know nothing else but this life, raised under their father’s rule, and understanding it as their rightful burden to carry on the religious traditions of the family – because it is only the women who take on this traumatic task. So this film does not only tackle religious oppression, and how it can be used to suppress poor, but how specifically some forms of religious fanaticism target women.
Rose and Iris, for their part, do not simply sit back with unquestioning obedience. They approach their presumed duties with great reluctance, and find the strength to even reject them. Iris, in particular, takes on the role of a leader in the resistance she and her sister show. When they refuse to eat the food, Rose looks to her to for the confidence to do so. Iris also shows the most broad defiance towards her father, at one point even pursuing an outsider romantically, one could easily expose her family’s secrets. And in on of the most disturbing moments in the film, her father murders her love interest mid-sex, both literally and figuratively stifling his daughter’s sexual freedom.
Rose has her own rebellion, though perhaps one that is quieter than what we see in Iris. For the first half of the film, her hair is tied up into tight, restrictive braids, until she first needs to kill a human victim. After this, she becomes disenchanted with their faith, and shortly thereafter is seen with short and wildly curly hair; more than likely cut in defiance. The visual transition from neat and tidy to unruly and wild is certainly one that parallels the girls’ attitudes towards their father’s authority.
The film is heavy with symbolism, whether it is the hair or the disturbing sexual repression. Perhaps one of the most poignant moments of symbolism occurs after the two girls first kill; they silently ponder over the female body in front of them, and proceed to mark it up in lipstick to figure out how best to butcher it for its meat. The reduction of the female form for its function, rather than seeing the person beneath, is at the heart of this film, and to use such a feminized tool to demonstrate that speaks volumes.
Then there is that final scene. After the film trudges along at a snail’s pace for the better part of two hours, the ultra violent conclusion is quite a shock initially. But when it comes down to it, this is the climactic release the film was building up to from the start – the quiet, stifling oppression of these girls could really only ever end this way, with them turning into the monsters and destroying their own father. There can be two readings on what this scene actually means: maybe the girls did finally turn into monsters due to their father’s influence, and they descended into the madness and animalistic hunger he represented. Or, perhaps, the girls killing and eating their father is simply one final act of defiance, to reject the life he imposed on them once and for all, taking their power back from him and adding insult to injury by disposing of him in the very means he taught them.
Regardless of how you interpret the ending, there is a sense of relief that the girls now have the opportunity to choose their own fate, whatever it may be. Perhaps the moral is that one can practice what they believe and not need to be restricted by it, or maybe there is more about destroying patriarchal institutions by the very means they used themselves. Whatever the takeaway from this film is, there is certainly a lot of unwrap while watching it, and if you have the patience for its slow pace, it has an eerie quality that will stay with you.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. The pace could have been better, but a very solid film!
Violence level: The violence doesn’t occur often, but when it does, it is pretty intense.
Scariness level: This is harder to discern. There is a disquieting element about this film, and it creeps along on that for most of the film. It hits you at the end with a bit of a shock, but how much that will scare you might depend on how you feel about the violence.
Bechdel test: Iris and Rose are the primary characters, and they interact with each other quite a lot. Pass.
Mako Mori test: The girls have to grapple with the guilt and shame associated with what they’re doing, and the rule of their father. Their father is ever present in their plot line, but they do not serve his storyline so much as he serves theirs.