SFF 13: We Are What We Are (2013)
Director: Jim Mickle
Director: Jim Mickle
Rating: 7.5 out of 10
I suppose there is no way I can start this review without immediately addressing the Elephant in the room. Yes, We Are What We Are is an English language remake of the Spanish film Somos Lo Que Hay. The word remake is sometimes looked upon as a dirty word amongst film geeks. Trepidation regarding the quality of remakes will always exist, it’s only natural. However, for this review, I’m not going to waste my time comparing both films in question as that would be a pointless endeavour in this particular case.
Both films are entirely different from one another despite sharing the same premise. Somos Lo Que Hay was (in my opinion) a pessimistic film rife with social commentary in regards to Capitalism and Poverty. We Are What We Are deliberately ignores that commentary and instead focuses in on the religious fundamentalism of the ritualistic family as its central theme. We Are What We Are is not just a mere shot for shot remake; it’s a different beast all together.
Director and Co-Screenwriter Jim Mickle lift’s the premise of the original film and relocates it from the Inner City of Mexico to the back end of Sleepy Rural Southern America. The film follows the reclusive Parker family and the bizarre rituals they practice.
It all begins when the Matriarch of the family unexpectedly passes away. Devastated and unable to cope with the sudden loss, the Patriarch (Bill Sage) of the family regresses into an emotional collapse. Leaving his two teenage daughters, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner), to ponder over who will step up to the plate and continue the cannibalistic rituals that the family practice every other Sunday.
The Parker’s do what they do under the guise of believing that it is a penance that must be performed in order to be saved in the eyes of the lord. They follow the writings of a diary kept by an ancient patriot relative who suffered through a harsh winter with very little in the way of food supplies, thus resorting to cannibalism out of desperation.
They treat this diary as if it were their equivalent of the holy words of scripture. Thus the diary has been passed down from generation to generation and is seen as a rite of passage into adulthood – in this case the eldest daughter Rose is next in line to inherit its ‘teachings’.
The family is kept under the strict ruling hand of the Patriarch -- played with unnerving intimidation by Bill Sage. He is a domineering force as he preaches his beliefs and traditions to the family in order to keep them together and to push forward with the annual ritual. Much like the film as a whole, he has a simmering rage boiling underneath his controlled exterior demeanour that threatens to erupt at any given moment; making him all the more frightening and intimidating.
His dominance makes life all the more difficult for his two teenage daughters who, with the recent death of their mother, are starting to question the ritualistic ways of their existence. They yearn for something else in life and struggle to come to grips with what it is they are. Much like the original film, denial plays an important factor for the siblings as it does for almost everyone else in the film – be it the savages or even the town sheriff denying suspicious foul play in his town. The siblings hide in denial of facing who they truly are until they are forced by cruel fate to face the beast that resides within.
Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner are excellent finds for these roles as they both deliver subdued and nuanced performances. They fit the mould perfectly as the somewhat reclusive children who can’t quite fit in with the outside world. They have the frail and pale physical complexity that compliments the dreary and rain soaked atmospheric mood that the film radiates.
While the family prepare for their next ritual, a flood hits the sleepy town washing up evidence of human remains to the surface. This attracts the curiosity of the local town Doctor, played by the always wonderful Michael Parks, who is still haunted by the mysterious disappearance of his daughter. Parks serves as a replacement to the bumbling and fame hungry detectives from the original film. This is actually a wise decision as Parks bring a measure of soul and humanity to the grisly proceedings and is a more then suitable change.
Much like its spiritual predecessor, it isn’t a film that relies on an overabundance of plot turns or ‘gotcha’ moments. It’s a very slow and deliberately paced film spanning over the course of four days. This is reflected with its use of stilted yet beautifully composed cinematography made up of a dreary, rain-soaked and moody palette of rustic greys. It shows a surprising amount of restraint and has patience in taking its time building its tension whilst shining the spotlight on its characters and themes.
It’s a very unassuming film where the tension is always simmering underneath just waiting to erupt. When it erupts, it grabs you by the throat unexpectedly and bites in hard. Unlike most Cannibal films that focus on gore for gore hound sake, it keeps the gruesome stuff to a minimum. But it is all the more effective for doing so. It is most surprising as the norm for most American remakes is to usually dial the volume way up to eleven. Yet this one is surprisingly restrained, maybe even more so than the original.
Unfortunately it does share one of the major problems I had with the original film. That problem being the investigative subplot that runs parallel to the central story. It starts to feel a little laboured in building to its grisly finale as the pacing tapers off. Despite the investigation led by Michael Parks and his oblivious nature over what happened to his daughter being a focal point. The mystery doesn’t carry over as compelling viewing when we the audience are always one step ahead in knowing who the Parkers really are. So instead, we are left waiting for all of the plot elements to catch up.
Also, at times, it’s a little too ponderous in regards to its minimal ideas. The sad truth is there just isn’t enough here to fully constitute the overtly ponderous nature and thus it is left to sag a little under the weight of its own inflated existentialism.
As far as remakes go, We Are What We Are is a fascinating case study of a remake done rather well. At no point watching it did I feel the familiarity of ‘I’ve been here and done all of this before’. Despite a few casual sly nods of referencing here and there to the original film, it stands apart as a drastically different film that has something else on its mind and as is, it does stand very well next to its original counterpart.