We are What We Are opens with a series of slow moving images of an eerie afternoon rain storm. The trees and the grass have that almost artificially green hue they get when contrasted with the dark gray sky, and a wind is blowing through the air that gives what might seem a peaceful summer rain an ominous feel. There's a leaf moving down a river (rivers and things moving down them will end up playing an important role in the movie) and then a bridge with a car going across it, letting us know we're in civilization. Next the camera moves up to a house and we see a woman looking out the window at the storm, a dejected, almost pensive look on her face. It's as if the storm outside her window is calling her to her doom. It has an almost biblical or apocalyptic feel to it, which, in a film that's so much concerned with family, tradition, and sacrifice, might not be entirely inaccurate.
As it turns out, the woman is to meet her doom. She goes out into the storm, which seems to pick up a bit more, and visits a general store, where we see a man put a dead pig on a counter, and a close-up of a beef being squeezed out of a meat grinder. The feeling of discomfort only increases, but then our attention is quickly brought back to the woman, who after buying her groceries, goes out to her car and begins to bleed from her nose. She starts to panic, slips, hits her head on a metal pike, and falls into a ditch, dead.
In a movie full of quiet gestures and hints, this opening scene is contrarily one of the most blatant and forceful. That director Jim Mickle then turns from that and tells a very deliberate and often quiet American horror story is emblematic of his diversity and sense of restraint. It also shows that Mickle, whose previous film, Stake Land, was structured around movement and intensity, likes to challenge himself with different modes of storytelling while staying within the restraints of genre. He's surely one of the most exciting voices in cinema today, and the comparisons he's had with John Carpenter, which are quite accurate, should have genre fans buzzing.
The death of the woman brings about turmoil and grief in her family, which consists of the husband, two daughters, and son. We immediately note strange things, such as the fact that they're on a fast, and that they must continue on with some unknown tradition despite the fact that mom's dead. Mickle isn't trying to keep it a secret, yet he's set on unfolding the full extent of it slowly such that he never looses his established mood. A stunning example of this comes when the young son becomes ill and is watched over by the family's kind neighbor. As she checks for a fever the boy begins to suck on her thumb, almost as if he were an infant nursing. He's about six, so it's a bit strange, but the woman is kind and somewhat of a new maternal figure for the family, so she lets him continue until suddenly he bites her. She yanks her hand away and then in an instant Mickle cuts to a closeup of the boy as he says "I'm hungry." It's astoundingly creepy and effective, a brilliant example of both nuanced horror filmmaking and crafty exposition. Yet Mickle still manages to cook up a good deal of old fashioned suspense by incorporating other members of the town in the story, like the local doctor who finds a bone in the woods and suspects it to be human. We know who it will tie back to, but, as Hitchcock showed countless times, it's this knowledge that provides the excitement.
Like the film itself, I haven't brazenly stated what the subject of the movie is, yet, also like the movie, it's not terribly difficult to determine. This is a movie about cannibals. Yet rather than exploiting the topic, Mickle keeps it hush-hush and takes it dead seriously.