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We Are What We Are 2013 movie poster

As far as films goes, I have very few hard-and-fast rules although I do have a few: I dislike “MTV-style-editing,” although there’s probably a better way to describe that notion nowadays…I think that character development is a must, even in a Z-grade slasher film…if the subtitled version is available, the dubbed version is persona non grata…gratuitous gore better have a purpose or it better be so over the top that I laugh…and I dislike remakes/re-imaginings/re-dos with a passion. As with anything, these rules were made to be broken but they’ve served me pretty well over the years, nonetheless. Of all of these, however (although the subtitled/dubbed rule is one I rarely violate and then only from necessity), the one that probably sticks with me the most is the one about remakes.

For the most part, I find modern remakes to be pointless, crass money-grabs that are all about the almighty dollar: modern filmmakers don’t remake films because they think they can do them better…they remake films because there’s already a built-in audience, cutting down the need for excessive advertising and (possibly) guaranteeing a big box office take, at least initially. Here’s the funny thing about modern remakes, however: they’re pretty much the ultimate in head-scratching, “who-are-they-trying-to-please?” marketing. In most cases, modern remakes don’t do much more than sub in younger, more attractive casts, polish up the production values and add elements that might appeal to modern viewers (current pop culture references, pop music, nods to current events, etc…). Let’s take the (fairly) recent Platinum Dunes remakes of the slasher chestnut Friday the 13th. If you’re a fan of the gritty, low-budget original film, are you really going to be interested in a big budget, glossy remake? Likewise, if you’re a hip modern kid, are you really going to be interested in a moldy old relic like Friday the 13th when you have everything from The Human Centipede to August Underground to feast your little peepers on? Probably not. These films seem to exist in a no-man’s-land where the only line of reasoning seems to be “This movie once existed and people watched it. If we remake it and release it again, they’ll watch it again.”

That being said…rules are made to be broken. Every great once in a while, a come upon a remake that I actually like. In the rarest of occasions, I can even find myself loving a remake: what horror/genre fan doesn’t absolutely adore John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing? Cronenberg’s The Fly? I found myself really impressed by the recent remake of Maniac and I’ve always preferred the American remake of The Ring to the original Ringu. I even find myself really enjoying Zach Snyder’s remake of Romero’s classic Dawn of the Dead, which is something that approaches heresy in my belief system. Keep in mind, however: this is five films (with another possible five or so to go) out of dozens and dozens of films…possibly more than that. At this point, everything from The Toolbox Murders to Patrick to I Spit on Your Grave and Poltergeist are being remade, often with no more forethought or insight than any other direct-to-video release.

When remakes work (if at all) they work because the filmmakers actually have a vision, rather than a money-making idea. Whether trying to improve on an older, beloved film (Del Toro’s re-imagining of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark) or taking the original property in a wildly divergent direction (Cronenberg’s The Fly, which resembles the Vincent Price original in name only), successful remakes actually have something to say: they aren’t just empty calories, the cinematic equivalent of Ho-Hos. Jim Mickle’s striking, sobering remake of Jorge Michel Grau’s We Are What We Are manages to take the impressive original to amazing new heights, taking the basic story and twisting and contorting it in fascinating new directions. It’s the best way to approach remaking a film and, in this, Mickle has created one of his best, most enduring works yet.

In a rural America which may be the Ozarks, Oregon, Washington State or right around the corner from the folks in Jug Face, we meet the Parker family: mother Emma (Kassie DePaiva), father Frank (Bill Sage), young son Rory (Jack Gore) and daughters Rose (Julia Garner) and Iris (Ambyr Childers). The Parkers are friendly, if distant, and seem to subsist by renting out their large property to folks in mobile homes (including Larry Fessenden, whose turned these sort of “backwoods” roles into a kind of cottage industry). Times are hard, especially since nearly continuous rain has produced flooding which has forced many of the tenants from their lands. On top of this, Mrs. Parker suddenly grows sick and dies while grocery shopping in town. Aside from cooking, cleaning and tending to the kids, Mrs. Parker was also responsible for acquiring their “meat,” the kind which isn’t available in butcher shops. Now, Rose and Iris must step up and assume their place in a time-honored tradition, a tradition that is necessary for the continued survival of the Parkers but deadly business for anyone around them. As the local doctor (Michael Parks) and Deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell), who’s sweet on Iris, begin to piece everything together, Frank Parker becomes increasingly unstable. Will Rose and Iris be able to hold everything together or will the modern world finally wash them all to oblivion?

From the very first frame of the film, where we watch a leaf fall from a tree before continuing its journey down a river, We Are What We Are exudes a very austere, melancholy atmosphere, giving the film the veneer of a prestige picture that just happens to be about rural cannibals. Imagine a Merchant/Ivory version of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and you’re in the right ballpark, although the corresponding image is way too flip to do the actual result justice. Plain and simple, We Are What We Are is a beautiful film, gorgeous to look at and filled with the kind of powerful, subtle performances that would draw raves were this any other kind of film. This is a film that deals with big issues (matriarchy vs patriarchy; the loss of traditional ways in the of modernity; the morality of a carnivorous lifestyle; family vs society; the death of a parent/spouse; the Electra complex) but manages to weave them organically into the fabric of the movie, making this the furthest thing from a “message picture,” while being one of the most thoughtful, cerebral genre films in quite some time.

In many ways, We Are What We Are is a companion piece to Alfredson’s Let the Right One In or, perhaps, the aforementioned Jug Face. These are all slow, solemn, character-heavy films that apply their drama and dread in equal measures, letting everything simmer and slow-burn before gradually amping things up to an inevitable fever pitch. We Are What We Are may begin in a quiet, pensive way but it climaxes in a fury of blood, an orgiastic feast that manages to subvert and subsume traditional notions of family all in one big gulp. That the film never loses its footing in between these polar opposites is impressive, but only if you don’t know who’s behind the wheel of this particular big-rig: Jim Mickle.

Mickle has been one of my favorite new directors and one of the shining stars on my Best New Directors list ever since I saw his debut feature, Mulberry St, back in 2006. The film, a gritty yet strangely dreamlike, claustrophobic zombie film that subs in mutant rat-men for the walking dead, was a helluva debut but the follow-up, Stake Land, was the kicker. After one viewing, Stake Land (2010) became my favorite vampire film ever and, to be honest, one of the best films I’ve (still) ever seen. After watching the film more times than I can count, my opinion still stands: Stake Land is one of those rare perfect films, the kind of impossible gem where every element is in complete synchronization. It’s hugely emotional without being manipulative (I still tear up every time I get to the end), full of jaw-dropping fight sequences and deliciously gory practical effects, features a smart, economical script and actually has new, interesting things to say about a very old genre. In short, Stake Land was going to be difficult to equal, impossible to best. While We Are What We Are isn’t better than Stake Land (honestly, I’m not sure that there’s much out there that is better, at least that I’ve seen), it is certainly the film’s equal and yet another feather in Mickle’s already impressive cap. His newest film, Cold in July, has been earning rave reviews on the festival circuit, ensuring that his star is only on the rise.

I went into We Are What We Are expecting a lot, despite the film’s status as a remake, and was not disappointed in the slightest. The film is a complete marvel, the kind of experience that patient genre fans will remember for years to come (possibly the rest of their lives). The movie is filled with what seem to be a million little bright spots, like clouds of fireflies on a summer day: Marge’s vegetarian lasagna; the flashbacks that reminded me of Ravenous (another favorite film); the subtle but strong sense of feminism that informed the film; the terrifyingly tense, almost Hitchcockian dinner scene; the flood that reveals God’s wrath in ways that no tent-revival preacher ever could; another wonderful performance by Fessenden; the revelatory performances by Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers; the ending that inspires hope and fear in equal doses…all of this and so much more.

As a remake, Mickle’s We Are What We Are does everything I want it to do (and more): it actually has a function. As a film, We Are What We Are does so much more. Like Carpenter’s The Thing and Cronenberg’s The Fly, Mickle’s film refuses to rest on the laurels of its predecessor, blazing bold new paths into the unknown. It’s an instant classic, pure and simple, but I really didn’t expect less.