Jim Mickle, best known to horror fans as the writer/director of 2010's Stake Land, has chosen the difficult road with his version of the Mexican film We Are What We Are. I say 'version' rather than 'remake' because Mickle has made some fairly significant changes to the story and pacing of the original which, in almost all cases, are for the better. Under his thoughtful watch, this film transcends the genre and places it in a near-uncharted zone between horror and arthouse, which explains why it's been getting so much love on the festival circuit. Even more than the original, We Are What We Are finds beauty in the most unexpected places — a finger bone here, a bowl of human stew there — while a lilting piano and thoughtful country music selections, appropriate for the rural setting, allow you to almost forget the horrors you're being exposed to.
The story of We Are What We Are centers on the ultra-religious Parker family — mother Emma, father Frank, and their three children Iris, Rose, and Rory. When Emma collapses and dies in the street, blood pouring from her mouth, it falls on Iris and Rose (the two eldest) to keep up the family 'rituals' of killing and eating people at the behest of quietly-domineering Frank. The daughters find themselves questioning the rituals and, after the most evocative and troubling scene in the film, vow to discontinue them while, at the same time, evidence of their horrific crimes become visible to the town doctor and deputy sheriff.
Mickle has done a superb job casting WE ARE WHAT WE ARE, pulling talent from several corners of the genre like Martha Marcy May Marlene's Julia Garner as Rose, the prolific Bill Sage as Frank, and 45-year film veteran Kelly McGillis (who reunites with Mickle after working on Stake Land). Even next to all these heavyweights, Ambyr Childers, who plays eldest daughter Iris, manages to deliver my favourite performance of the film and manages to leave every emotion onscreen in what has to be an extremely challenging and demanding role.
Mickles additions and changes to the story, from the original to this version, are quite numerous. He has swapped the genders of the daughters around (they are boys in the original) and has changed the surviving parent from a mother to a father. He's also added the religious element, substituting it in for the original's socioeconomic motives behind the rituals. Everything works well, though the contemplative, slow pace of the first half of the film is disrupted in some less-than-subtle ways once it starts to get going. Still, there are many scenes and images in WE ARE WHAT WE ARE that will definitely sit with the viewer long after the credits have rolled.
It's not often that a 'remake' film surpasses the original, often because directors have so much reverence for the source material that they don't do enough to make their version worthwhile. Such is definitely not the case with Mickle. I don't mean to suggest that he doesn't respect Jorge Michael Grau's film, but he doesn't get so hung up on it that he's afraid to play around with some of the ideas surrounding the core concept of the story. If more genre filmmakers take the difficult road like Mickle, I hope more of the films once relegated to midnight screenings and Halloween parties can find an audience with the arthouse crowd.
The 2013 Toronto After Dark Film Festival runs from October 17th to 25th. You can find ticket and lineup information at the official site here.
Photo: Martha Marcy May Marlene's Julia Garner provides one of the most stunning performances in WE ARE WHAT WE ARE.
This review was written by Sachin Hingoo, a freelance writer when he is not working at an office job that is purpose-built for paying the bills while he works as a freelance writer. His writing has appeared on Mcsweeneys.net, the CBC Street Level Blog, Ohmpage.ca, and The Midnight Madness Blog for the Toronto International Film Festival. He has also been featured at Toronto lecture series Trampoline Hall (which is rumored to be excellent). His mutant power is 'feigning interest'. You can read all of his posts here.