What I'll tell you at the bar: Holy mother of god. How is it possible that an indie horror film this good ever got made?
Personally, "Stake Land" came along at the worst possible moment for me. Jim Mickle's earlier film was released as the unfortunate mainstream vampire craze was fading into the much more unfortunate mainstream fixation on zombies. I read enough good things about "Stake Land" that I let it slip past my "thisshitisdrivingmeinsane" filter so I could watch it. I enjoyed pretty much everything about that movie, thought it was almost tragic how it arrived when it did. In another time, it might have been a real break-out.
"We Are What We Are" is an amazing follow-up and probably a masterpiece. This is sophisticated, haunting, gorgeous, and you know what? It's shocking. Not shocking in the "What will Tom Six do next?" sort of way, but in the "holy hell what just happened" sort of way. The climax of this film is as horrible as it is magnificent and I can't imagine a better ending for this story. Seriously, just watch it.
The film starts out slowly enough, maybe too slow for some, but it is evocative of moodier thrillers. From the very opening it has a Southern Gothic feel atmosphere, the instant suggestion that something very evil is lurking beneath an already oppressive small town world. As the Parker family disintegrates in the wake of their mother's (Kassie Wesley DePaiva) unfortunate death, the skeletons in the family closet become impossible to keep locked up. Bill Sage (Frank Parker), Julia Garner (Rose Parker) and Ambyr Childers (Iris Parker) create a malevolent family that is both less melodramatic than the Sawyers (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) but also unsettling. The Sawyers were indisputably horrible, the Parkers have a charm and look about them that covers their worse crimes with old-timey nostalgia.
Shot by relatively unknown cinematographer Ryan Samul, the film is a visual tour de force from open to close. Sure, it's easy to make things look moody in soft light, but it's not easy to get that look perfect. This is A-list level work here. I'll be watching Samul's career closely. This cinematic style is served well by Mickle's smart and equally precise direction of framing and performance. He knows what to look at in a scene and just how to look at it. I know this will be overlooked by many as a genre film, but there is considerable artistry and talent at work in We Are What We Are. Maybe it takes seeing so many godawful horror movies to really appreciate just how good this one is.
I know there are plenty of horror fans that will think this is pretentious and slow bit of precious filmmaking. Mainstream audiences will have little patience for the mood and pacing of the story, especially considering the unexpected savagery of the final ten minutes. However, if you have an appreciation for the literary foundations of the horror genre, if you can enjoy a nightmare with no tongue to plant in cheek, then We Are What We Are maybe the best place to spend an evening. You may want to politely decline if the Parkers ask you over for dinner, though. Or bring a salad.