Monday, October 14, 2013

We Are What We Are (2013): Christian Cults as The Other

We Are What We Are (2013)
dir: Jim Mickle

The other is something that people fear.  And, also something that people identify with.  There are lots of others that get othered through horror movies, where the fear of the other means that you're turning whatever subgroup you don't belong to or are afraid of into the antagonist.  Blacks have been othered in horror movies (but, are more victims).  Gays have a long history of being the other.  And, cults have been others before too.  Scientists and robots have been others.  But, a more recent trend has been to other the diehard christians and/or christian cults.

Now, die hard christian haven't exactly been making it difficult to be othered.  They home school their children, they frequently avoid doctors and medicine, they have many children, some go around professing that everybody else is a sinner.  Sometimes they are socially awkward, while other times they are sweet as pie.  But, the die hard christians have rarely been othered.  When christianity is seen in many horror films before this decade, it had always been in the form of the salvation, and rarely had they been anything but normal everyday people.

In 2011, Kevin Smith made the horror movie Red State which completely othered christian cults.  It made them the horror movie villain, and stereotyped as necessary to the horror movie tropes.  Red State made the christian cults into sacrificial murderers and perversely violent hatemongers.  Smith was most obviously satirizing the Westboro Baptist Church, but took some liberties with it.

We Are What We Are others christian cultists, but is more focused on the backwoods small town cultists that hide behind doors in isolated houses in rural areas.  The ones that are so far other from the city folk who may actually watch this.  Mind you, Jim Mickle, the director, seems to have taken great pains to remove christian iconography from the film.  There are not rampant crosses or crucifixes. The belief language is deeply ensconced in western ideas of religion with the use of Gods, Lambs and Angels.  They also keep the Sabbath holy.  Yet, the christian iconography is not there, and Mickle has decided not to make it explicit to the text of the film.

We Are What We Are is a film that is all about atmosphere and tension.  It begins on a Friday with the mother of the family having splitting headaches, who then passes out and drowns in a puddle created by a torrential downpour.  Her children, 2 girls and a boy, are fasting until they can eat on Sunday.  The father of the house is enforcing the fast and keeping a watchful eye.  And, the torrential downpour soaks everything, washes away river banks, and floods roads.  It's a nasty storm.

The audience not knowing what events are to follow this set-up are the source of the tension and atmosphere in this horror movie.  As such, beyond the set-up and the source of the othering, which is also set up in the first frames), I will refrain from discussing the details of the film.  Not knowing what will happen is the primary source of pleasure in the film.

However, I'm sad to say that the audience is constantly 20 minutes ahead of the film, even while the film thinks it is keeping things a secret.  And, it feels like the film is purposefully making things a secret, when really we all know what will happen by the half-Grand Guignol reveal towards the end of the act 2.  The reveal is a gorgeous sequence though, filled with some artistry, but also some humor.  Once the reveal is final, though, the film loses its mystery and one of its gears slips.

When that gear slips, one realizes that it's the mystery of the film.  Without that mystery, we're not sure where the film is headed.  Ok, we know where it is headed, but the hows remain ensconced in confusion.  The missing mystery of the film, however, starts being replaced with tonal ineptitude and almost high camp.  Soon, the characters start acting out in ridiculous ways.  The climax is so enveloped in stupidity in order to push its characters to an act of sensual, incredulous, and ridiculous proportions that it would fit right in with the Grand Guignol finales of old.

We Are What We Are doesn't work.  It's second half loses its steam right at the reveal.  And, the reveal isn't all that surprising since most people figured out what was happening well before that even occurred.  It's possibly worth a rental, if only for the amazingly ridiculous climax that had more than a few people laughing for a good long period of time.

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