Thursday, March 27, 2014

We Are What We Are (2013)

By now, you're probably well aware that this is yet another US remake of the original 2010 Mexican movie Somos Lo Que Hay (I'll save you the trouble and admit that my review of the original is just a placeholder, i.e. no need to click that link). Usually, I would beg that you at least watch the original first but still give the remake its shot (for e.g. La Casa Muda/The Silent House; Låt den rätte komma in/Let Me In), and in some cases skip the remake all together (every 80s slasher movie remake thus far). In this case, though, I'm experiencing an unorthodox bent toward suggesting to watch the remake first. If, like me, you've already seen the remake rather recently (within the past year), I suggest waiting another year or two to let its impression fade from memory. Not that one is strikingly better than the other, in this case; it's just that knowing the story and basic execution could cause extreme boredom for the first and much of the second acts.

When I first heard that this movie was being remade in the States, I checked the director and found Jim Mickle. I was unfamiliar with the name, so I looked at his directorial credits, only to find that I'd seen both of his previous movies: Mulberry Street (which was an After Dark entry) and Stake Land, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. So, I felt confident we would get solid direction. And we did. In addition, we get stunning visuals and carefully detailed set design. The cinematography is gray and blue and clearly, patiently shot, adding to the intense, somber atmosphere of the film. The entire first half of the movie brings you into a different world; one in which there is little hope for those who were born into a different way of life. Everything from the opening shot of a leaf broken from its branch and carried downstream to the chipped-paint of the screen-door to the tragic shot of the mother's face and body enveloped by rainwater--all of these things create a world and a story from which the audience cannot even try to escape.

I don't care to compare and contrast the two movies too much. Sure, there are differences in the familial dynamics (the gender and relational roles with which Mickle works are different from the original), but I feel this film should be experienced on its own as much as possible (hence my insistence that it be watched before the original or with a lot of time in between). The biggest reason is that I was bored to snores throughout the rather lengthy and slow execution of the first half, mostly because I already knew what was going on. Really, sadly, if you even read the terse blurb on the Netflix envelope, you know what the big secret is--yet the film progresses as if this is a big unknown, deliberately keeping the family's big secret ambiguous. Honestly, I fell asleep on the first two tries with this film, only to finally get through it all on my lunch break today. But, again, the execution is understated and artistically solid, so if you actually don't know the central plot of the movie, you will have a fine experience.

The acting is quite solid, too, and thankfully we don't get any overly familiar faces in this remake. The children all do a superb job of eliciting heartbreaking sympathy from the viewer. Instead of chalking them up to terrible people and writing them off, we view them as innocent victims, born into an aberrant way of life. In one shot in particular, following the loss of their mother, we see the three siblings snuggled together in bed, without covers, their bodies and legs all angled the same way, comforting one another. The shot immediately reminded me of a similar setup from Ingmar Bergman's magnum opus Fanny och Alexandre (if you haven't seen this, you need to; and be sure to get the TV-series version that is much longer; you won't regret it). So, despite being somewhat bored with the slow execution of the plot, we at least get characters with whom we can sympathize.

The film picks up the pace at the one-hour mark, when we finally get the inevitable dinner scene. By this point, we've been given some exposition (with flashbacks and an aged diary for illumination) with ritualistic, religious connotations. Then it's as if a different film takes over. The literal storm that takes place in the beginning sets the stage for a perfect storm of a sort of macabre Shakespearean bent. A police-investigation subplot ensues and during the mandatory horror-movie research scene, the heroic doctor is led through his forensic analysis to a rare disease most commonly caused by...yep: cannibalism. But, rest assured, the movie wastes no time depicting this; it all takes place within minutes. What we do get in the last part of the film is the final physical and mental degeneration of the father, and the banding together of the sisters, all of which I applaud the film for. And, finally, we are given the payoff that we long for, and though it is predictable, it is still satisfying--especially after the disappointing ending of my last movie, Contracted.

We Are What We Are is truly grim and disturbing, even if those of us who've seen the original have to fight through one hour of buildup. The decision to use two daughters makes for a more unsettling and unexpected experience than the original. Overall, the film finds its footing and delivers a satisfactory remake that shouldn't be easily dismissed as mere superfluousness. Underpinning the major taboo subject matter are two philosophical discourses: (1) Nature itself reacts against unnatural indulgences; and (2) the moral dilemma of children born into a situation propagated by their parents. Yet, in face of the weighty undertones and horrifying subject matter, Mickle allows room for a little humour to shine through, too. First, we get a parting shot of Rose scarfing down just one more piece of flesh, and then the final shot of the father, highlighted with a jarringly playful song that informs us that the girls are good, the father just made them bad.

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