Director: Jim Mickle
Writers: Nick Damici, Jim Mickle
Based on a film written by: Jorge Michel Grau
Starring: Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner, Kelly McGillis
Running Time: 101 min
BBFC Certificate: 18
Remakes have never been popular amongst film fans, but what really riles them up are remakes of well respected foreign films which were only made recently themselves so feel like a waste of time. Are subtitles really that difficult for some people to deal with? The Old Boy remake is the most recent example of an unnecessary exercise which failed quite badly. They're not always bad as such, the English language take on Let the Right One In (Let Them In) was very well made, but it still felt like it wasn't really needed, especially given how little it diverged from the original. So I wasn't at all excited when I heard Jorge Michel Grau's We Are What We Are was being remade in the US. However, when I heard that Jim Mickle was directing it, I became more intrigued. Mickle directed Stakeland back in 2010, a unique and moody spin on the vampire formula which I liked a lot. His slow paced, brooding style seemed like a decent fit for the Mexican subject material and I was interested to see what he would do next, regardless of where it came from.
I'm not sure how much of the plot of We Are What We Are I should explain as the film holds a lot of its cards close to its chest, but at the same time it is a remake (of not a particularly well known film I guess) and I'm sure much of the marketing gives away the central premise. I'll try my best to not give anything away, but those new to the film should maybe skip the following paragraph. I've marked where I spoil it later on too.
We Are What We Are takes the urban slum setting of the Mexican original and shifts it to upstate New York where The Parkers, an unusual, fairly reclusive family carry out their annual peculiar 'religious' rituals, which hit a stumbling block when the mother dies just before the latest one. The eldest of her two teenage daughters (Ambyr Childers & Julia Garner) must now take on her role, forced by their overbearing father (Bill Sage), whilst their young brother (Jack Gore) struggles to understand quite what they're wrapped up in. The small town in which they live is getting beaten down by a brutal storm and has seen a young girl go missing, something which has happened a little too regularly over the years. Through the film it's suggested that The Parkers might have something to do with the disappearances and quite how deep their involvement is and how it links with their annual ritual isn't fully explained until late into the film (although you'll probably guess from the hints dropped throughout).
Mickle's take on We Are What We Are struggled with 'remake syndrome' in the first half for me. Thankfully he changes a lot from the original film, so it doesn't feel as unnecessary as some other remakes. Not only has the setting changed, but key role switches alter the film a lot in terms of dynamics and the overall theme. The swapping of gender roles, as well as another couple of tweaks, create a double edged sword though. In some ways, having the mother die instead of the father and having the daughter take on responsibility instead of the son, works well and still makes sense, but occasionally is more difficult to swallow. In particular, (*spoiler*) having the girls be the butchers of their sacrifices isn't quite as believable given their reluctance and the fact that the father seems much more willing and able (*end of spoiler*). I thought the original had a more interesting dynamic too. The idea of the younger son having to take on the patriarchal role from his father worked a little better for me and the original in general had more of a powerful metaphor in play with its mirroring of the treatment of poverty-stricken inner-city areas of Mexico.
A lot of the narrative changes make the remake seem less unique too. The original didn't really feel like anything else I'd seen, whereas this feeds in a few more potential spanners in the Parkers' works in Kelly McGillis' kindly neighbour, Michael Parks' inquisitive doctor and the police detectives on the case (the original just had one detective). This makes for some predictable showdowns and slightly more cliched moments throughout. The audience is kept less in the dark than before too, which is achieved through a little more exposition and some flashbacks which explain the history of the family ritual. The new film still takes its time to fully reveal what's going on and is more subtle than most Hollywood genre fare, but it does feel a little more conventional than before.
As the remake moved towards its second half I started to forget about the remake factor though and warmed to it quite a bit. As he showed with Stakeland, Mickle is great at handling mood and atmosphere, with a strong sense of dread building through the slow-moving narrative. It looks great too, moving from sweaty Mexico to a storm-soaked North America to provide a totally different, but equally as oppressive style.
The totally altered finale, without wanting to give it away, worked for me too. Some of the build up is typical 'good guy chasing bad guy' fare, but what follows is powerful and effective, even if it is quite bombastic compared to the slow build which precedes it. The original ended with a bit of an over-the-top shootout which didn't do much for me.
So overall I struggled to shake off the fact that some aspects worked better in the original film and I do prefer that in general. However, the remake is still a solid and fresh slow-build horror which those unaware of the original film will probably love.
We Are What We Are is out now in the UK on DVD, released by Entertainment One. The picture and sound quality is decent enough.
There are a handful of decent extra features. First up is a 52 minute look behind the scenes of the making of the film. This is raw in presentation, with no talking heads or narration to clearly hold your interest, but through decent footage and a chronological structure, it still works quite well as a natural view of what went into making the film. To make up for the lack of explanation in this feature, there are 15 minutes of interviews with Mickle and some of the cast, which is fairly typical talking heads fare, but the content is nonetheless pretty strong. Finally, there's an audio commentary available for the film with Mickle, Nick Damici, Julia Garner, Bill Sage & cinematographer Ryan Samul. This is great – lively, funny and full of interesting tidbits. One of the best commentaries I've heard for a while.