Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are (2013) – his follow-up to blood-soaked vampire drama Stake Land (2010) – is so convincing that it almost makes the case for the horror remake as a viable, rich art form in and of itself. Not only is it a much better film than Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 Mexican original, it amplifies the elements that worked and mutes those that didn’t. Mickle’s vision is distinct; it’s a stark, lyrical picture, underscored by a sense of melancholic longing. In the grand Gothic tradition, the director finds beauty in the horrific by conflating the primal impulses of damaged people with the extremities of human nature.
The film follows the Parkers, a reclusive, traditional American family headed up by domineering patriarch Frank (Bill Sage). As he grieves his recently deceased wife, his eldest daughter Iris (Ambyr Cholders) and her sister Rose (Julia Garner) become burdened with the responsibility to uphold a gruesome custom kept by their ancestors for generations. They are cannibals preparing for their ritualistic feast of human flesh but, as the big day approaches, the girls – who are becoming increasingly cognisant of the horrors of their traditions – begin to muster up the strength of mind to deviate from their father’s wishes. Mickle, now on his third feature, shows a deft grasp of genre and theme across each and every part of We Are What We Are.
The gloomy end-of-days tone is nicely complemented by Ryan Samuel’s downcast cinematography and the finely judged mix of naturalism and theatrical artifice in the performances. The apocalyptic ruminations build throughout the picture – the rain falls, the river floods and the storm rages – there’s biblical force at work. These thunderous omens contrast with the quieter interactions between the central family, but they are equally ominous in their own way. When the bones begin to emerge from the eroded land, it’s like Mickle literally brings the past to confront the present; if the land is being wiped out, then all its sins will come back to bear down on it. At its heart, We Are What We Are is a film concerned with the tyranny of tradition.
The Parkers treat their customs with a fervour akin to religious devotion. But, for the girls, the pronounced emergence of the modern world and their dawning realisation of their own individual worth starts to unshackle them from the herd-like nucleus of Frank’s domain. More importantly, Mickle realises that, in fanatical cult-like communities, choice is still a tenuous ideal. The girls are resisting a powerful urge that manifests itself both psychologically and physically. Indeed, the ‘consummation’ scene itself plays out with almost tragic fatality. Their way of life may be threatened, and the great storm may be coming, but blood is thicker than water. It’s intelligent, stylish genre cinema of the highest order.
Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are remake screens at London’s Genesis Cinema from Friday 28 February.