“Takes more than a flood to bring this family to its knees,” intones Frank Parker (Bill Sage) as he musters his children to begin the preparations for their annual ceremonial dinner. In this waterlogged Southern Gothic, tradition is as important as the meat that goes in their pot.
When their mother dies suddenly, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) are left with the responsibility of preparing the meal. Iris seems ready to shoulder the burden but Rose suggests leaving the family behind. As the day nears and the two girls discuss their options, Doc Barrow (Michael Parks) makes a disturbing discovery in the river: a bone that he’s almost certain is human.
Taking on a remake is not an enviable task. You’re presenting the audience with an immediate point of comparison and your film will be judged in terms of quality and fidelity. Follow it too closely and the film will be deemed to be pointless. Differ too much from the source and you’ll be criticised for missing the point. The filmmaking team of Jim Mickle (writer/director) and Nick Damici (writer/actor) impressed with their 2010 vampire survival movie Stake Land, and we were interested to see what they would do with Jorge Michel Grau’s Somos Lo Que Hay, an inaccessible but fascinating Chilean cannibal family drama. In short, they preserve the central conflict of the original while making the film their own.
This remake fully embraces its American identity; the setting and the characters feel fresh and intriguing despite going through a similar struggle. It’s a modern Depression era fable that doesn’t require too much manouevering to slot into classic Southern Gothic territory. The Parkers make their living from renting trailers on their property but the local economy is driving away their residents. Frank’s strict religious beliefs (Mickle doesn’t skimp on the striking religious imagery) place him as a man out of time as his actions place him as a man outside of morality. “Is that in the Bible?” asks kindly neighbour Marge (Kelly McGillis) after he thanks her for her help. “It’s in mine,” he growls back. Flashbacks to the family tradition’s frontier origins place The Parkers as part of American history; their brutal practice doesn’t just resemble Thanksgiving, it’s not too far from being concurrent.
It’s not all about the American history. Mickle’s focus on everyday struggles gives the film a powerful emotional resonance. Iris and Rose must step away from their childhood to take their mother’s place, as the former awkwardly interacts with her old high school crush Deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell), the latter determines to protect their young brother Rory, who’s become aware of “the monster” in the cellar. Frank can ignore the biblical relevance of the flood all he wants, but the secrets it brings to the surface will push his family to its limits.
The performances are outstanding. Childers and Garner have the hardest roles as their characters approach the point of no return. Will they follow in their family’s footsteps, or will they break from tradition and leave town like everyone else? The two actors walk the difficult line between girls next door and something decidedly different superbly, with Garner (Electrick Children, The Last Exorcism Part Two) in particular proving that she is a talent to be reckoned with.
Sage (Mysterious Skin, Simple Men) gives his paterfamilias surprising moments of warmth and humour that don’t make him any less threatening, and McGillis (who is becoming an indie horror stamp of quality after Stake Land and The Innkeepers) pops up for a welcome appearance. But out of the excellent cast, it’s ultimately Parks who gives the most memorable performance. After his fire and brimestone turn in Red State, he’s heartbreaking as the grieving father who wonders if he might finally have found out what happened to his missing daughter, and whether or not he really wants to know.
In clearly establishing its own identity while losing none of the essential aspects of the original film, We Are What We Are easily sidesteps the basic accusations that can lazily be levelled at remakes. Its horror stems from the lyrical, literary tradition of the dustbowl, of people being torn out from their homes by their roots, and of the threat and opportunity brought by an irrevocable change. There are shocking moments of horror but these are held back as Mickle establishes his subdued atmosphere and the humanity of his monsters. The question isn’t whether or not this is as good as the original. The question is: is this better?
This is a haunting, beautifully shot and wonderfully performed horror, using its relocation to create a story steeped in American history and values. It builds to an immensely powerful finale and it will stay with you long after the credits roll. We Are What We Are is superb.