We Are What We Are (2013) d. Mickle, Jim (USA)
There’s a deep dark secret at the center of writer/director Mickle’s latest feature, his third following the acclaimed Mulberry St. and Stake Land. The irony is that this mystery, which enjoys its big reveal about an hour into the film, is a large part of the high concept pitch and is likely to be known to anyone who settles in to watch, especially if they are in any way familiar with Jorge Michel Grau’s original Mexican shocker. Because Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici have taken such pains to carefully unwrap this plot element, I will endeavor to do the same. But regardless of whether viewers know where the winding road leads, the experience is not diminished; this is powerful, assured filmmaking that overcomes the clunkiness of its predecessor and stands as the fiercely independent artist’s most fully realized effort to date. And – barring an excessively silly climax (thrown in to appease the gorehounds) – it’s also probably one of the finest remakes of the past two decades.
Those who read my review of Grau’s 2010 film (beware: mild spoilers) might remember I was quite taken with the overall concept but found the meandering final result littered with loose ends and missed opportunities. When I heard that Mickle would be helming the remake, it seemed the rare occasion where an English language do-over could actually be an improvement as opposed to a desecration or an easy cash grab. This We Are What We Are is not going to make anyone rich – it’s just not cut from crowd-pleaser cloth. There are no cheap thrills or ear-splitting boo-scares to be found; instead, it is a deeply atmospheric and melancholy character study that begins and ends with skin-soaking rainstorms, loss, poverty, failed human connections, and death.
Mickle and Damici (who also plays the local sheriff) have done a complete gender switch; where Grau’s troubled clan consisted of a recent widow and her brood of two boys and a girl, we are now presented with the Parker family who lose their matriarch in the opening scene, setting in motion the events that follow. Bill Sage (star of several Hal Hartley films in the mid-90s and a reliable but undervalued character actor ever since) is Frank Parker, a reclusive and sickly hermit living in a trailer park in the Catskills with his two lovely daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner) and young son Rory (Jack Gore). As the Parkers mourn, we soon learn that there is more than mere grief behind their sorrow – an important link in the chain has been broken; family roles are up for grabs and everyone must do their part in order to survive. But the rising floodwaters are digging up secrets of their own, one that affects the community at large and aging Doc Barrow (Michael Parks) in particular. Blood is thicker than water, but bones carry more weight than both.
It’s a shame that We Are What We Are seems destined to be an art-house sleeper – in crafting a nearly perfect mood piece (again, excepting the goofy “horror” ending), Mickle has once again delayed his discovery by the studio players as this generation’s finest genre director. All the actors, especially Parks and Kelly McGillis (who both have emerged as peerless character players over the past decade), effortlessly inhabit their roles with unshowy grace. The deliberate pace and melancholy tone are not going to be for everyone, but they feel inexorably right for a story so earthy and timeless. (The scene of Parks paging through books in search of answers in this Google-driven world exemplifies the low-tech, low-key vibe Mickle and his able cohorts have cultivated.) Jeff Grace, Darren Morris and Phil Mossman craft an achingly beautiful and evocative musical score, perfectly complementing Ryan Samuel’s elegiac, color-leached cinematography. In short, it’s a superb collaboration of artists deserving of a wider audience, one likely doomed to the fringe by its purity of vision.
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine