I was pretty surprised when I read that Jim Mickle (Mulberry Street, Stake Land) was working on a remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s film of the same name. But as an admirer of Mickle’s previous work I went in with an open mind, happily to discover that We Are What We Are is a very rare treat indeed – a remake (or “re-imagining”) that is actually very good, and in some ways surpasses the original. Even Grau has been on record as saying he thinks it’s an improvement on his original idea.
In Mickle’s version the setting is transplanted from Mexico City to a small town in upstate New York that is steeped in an American gothic aesthetic, which creates an atmosphere that is immediately oppressive, working effectively with the storyline that this time around centres on ritualistic religious fanaticism and the central patriarch’s warped interpretation of worship. The roles are pretty much a straight reversal of the original, this time leaving a father to care for two teenage daughters and their infant brother in the wake of the sudden death of his wife. Frank Parker (Bill Sage) keeps his close-knit family under strict control, terrifying them into abiding by his rules and regulations governed by a mysterious book that he carries with him at all times. Iris (Ambyr Childers) is the eldest, reluctantly stepping into the shoes of her mother taking on the role as carer and provider for her family and Rose (Julia Garner) is the younger and more rebellious of the daughters, whilst Rory (Jack Gore) is too young to really understand what is going on.
A torrential rainstorm batters the town and its residents, including the Parker’s well meaning neighbour Marge (Kelly McGillis) and the local doctor, Dr Barrow (Michael Parks) who is still reeling from the disappearance of his daughter the year previously. With the rain comes a flood, washing up what appears to be human bones along the riverbank. Doc Barrow’s suspicions and the increasing number of missing persons leads him directly to the Parkers, whose distance and oddball behaviour have earned them the dubious honour of being the town outcasts. Meanwhile Deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell, son of Kurt), has been nursing a crush on Iris since high school and whilst tasked with trawling the riverbanks he finds yet more suspicious remains, including a human tooth that leads him to the Parker’s home and their family burial ground. Their secret, of course, is that their beliefs are linked to the systematic consumption of human flesh, and the mother’s death was in fact brought on by her suffering from a rare disease caused by cannibalism.
As the flood waters rise, so to do the tensions between the remaining family members, and there is one scene in particular where Iris and Rose comes face to face for the very first time with the reality of what their family has been doing as they are required to provide the meat for the family dinner. Obviously, they had an understanding of what was going on, but when forced to kill for the first time the remaining few threads that had been barely keeping the family together start to unravel with devastating consequences. The two young actresses are perfectly cast, and Garner in particular is the stand-out as Rose, strong-willed and defiant to the end.
I loved the original film and was genuinely surprised by what Mickle did here. Stripping the story down to its bones and building up into something completely different and fresh whilst retaining the same strong sense of a family, duty and ultimately tragedy. We Are What We Are serves more as a companion piece than a straight up remake to the original, and I whole heartedly recommend seeking it out.