American remakes of foreign language films are generally considered to be bad decisions all round. For the most part it’s a correct assumption – cinemas are constantly overrun by half-baked reworkings desperately trying to ride on the coattails of the hype generated by their foreign counterparts. Rarely better than the originals regardless of box office success, they’re most often lumped in the same category as US versions of beloved British TV series – uninspired, unoriginal, and clearly missing what made the source material so great in the first place. For every Rob Schneider starring Men Behaving Badly travesty though, there is occasionally something as funny and successful as the Steve Carell led The Office. For every deplorable Madonna fiasco like Swept Away there is sometimes an Oscar winning smash like Martin Scorsese’s exceptional The Departed.
The success rate for horror remakes is little lower. There is a bizarre reluctance for most directors to take risks with the genre, with franchise ready Japanese hits like The Ring and The Grudge consistently being made into mediocre Hollywood fare that draw crowds despite clearly lacking any imagination or ambition in their remodelling. Even a promising young director like Matt Reeves, the man responsible for the genuinely refreshing found footage hit Cloverfield chose to avoid messing with the formula when creating Let Me In, opting for a solid but safe replica of the Swedish horror classic Let The Right One In. Where Scorsese rightly had the confidence to mould his remake into his own distinctive vision, most horror movies adhere strictly to the outline provided – aiming to be faithful reproductions but instead coming off as derivative and stale.
Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are deploys a different approach from the outset. The original was a Mexican production of the same name, a thriller about a family of cannibals set in the slums of Mexico that received shock and acclaim in equal measure. Dark and disturbing, it was an occasionally excellent offering with a premise that gave room for a surprisingly resonant comment on poverty and wealth. While never a hit financially, it was unsurprisingly touted for an American update as soon as it was released, eventually landing in the capable hands of Mickle and his long time writing partner Nick Damici. The duo immediately set about transplanting it to an American setting and tweaking the set-up where they could.
The changes are significant, from the filmmaking itself to the setting and character motivations. Mickle moves his film to a small US town in the midst of a heavy storm, a far cry from the crowded inner city landscape of the original. The director has mentioned the indie favourite Martha Marcy May Marlene as an influence, and there are traces of that film’s isolation and dreaminess sprinkled throughout. This is a slow burn type of movie, carefully arranged and entirely unhurried. Mickle lets his shots linger, especially in an unexpectedly desolate first act. It begins with a death and a family in mourning – the devastated father played by Bill Sage, a confused young son and the two heavily burdened daughters Iris and Rose, played brilliantly by Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner. It’s a dialogue-lite beginning, artfully done and filled with stunning tracking shots and heartache.
Hints of something more sinister gradually poke through – ominous sobbing coming from the basement and an increasing reluctance from Iris and Rose over what needs to be done – before youngest son Rory stumbles upon a hideous discovery, revealing the full extent of the family’s horror. Mickle casually sprinkles messages throughout the film, small notes on religion, loyalty and parenting in amongst the atmospheric scenery and occasional doses of violence and bloodshed. It all builds to a truly horrific finale, a shocking, sickening and completely incredible resolution to the long build up. It’s a polarizing ending, but is somehow completely appropriate given all that has come before it.
Sage is solid, particularly in the first half, but Childers and Garner carry the film. Iris tries desperately to keep her commitment to the family even through every new disturbance, while Rose justifiably questions it all. Garner plays her perfectly, matching her character’s vulnerability with an appropriate toughness that springboards the film into its third act. Both actresses handle the feral intensity of that last scene with aplomb. The supporting cast all do their bit too – Top Gun alumni Kelly McGillis is suitably suspicious as the helpful neighbour Marge, while Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn’s son Wyatt Russell is charmingly clueless as police deputy and Iris’ love interest Anders. Michael Parks meanwhile is perhaps the most well-known actor here but unfortunately the most frustrating character, the man who uncovers the atrocities but makes a series of bewildering decisions to bring them to light. Aside from providing some necessary exposition, Parks’ character could almost be left out completely without too much impact on the end result.
Overall though, Mickle not only improves on the original, but has created a compellingly told drama that stands out from the pack through an impressive combination of arthouse and horror. It is unflinching with its gore, but just as open with its heartbreaking portrayal of a grieving family. This is grimly serious stuff, dark, moody and discomforting, a movie that could have easily slipped over to the side of cringe worthy schlock. This is a movie about a family of cannibals, so from its outline alone it faced an uphill battle for credibility. The fact that Mickle somehow manages to make that grisly premise a side note for much of its duration is a filmmaking feat that can’t be overlooked.
“I just wish that we were like everyone else” laments Rose after a particularly traumatizing scene midway through. Thankfully this is exactly the opposite – a remake unlike any of the others. It keeps the original’s blueprint, yet manages to feel like a different movie entirely. In a crowded market place packed with bland rehashes, We Are What We Are shows a distinct vision, a strangely poetic beauty amongst all the carnage.