Review first published by Grolsch FilmWorks
In the rain, a leaf falls from a branch into a creek, and is carried downstream. Beautifully shot (much like everything in Jim Mickle’s We Are What We Are), this opening sequence represents an evocative and poetic prefiguration: for not only will a big old tree, sent crashing by the torrential downpour, spill the bones buried beneath it down the river to the property of Doc Barrow (Michael Parks), who is still grieving the disappearance, years earlier, of his daughter; but also the Parker matriarch will suddenly drop dead into a pool of water, leaving her daughters Rose (Julia Garner) and Iris (Ambyr Childers) to decide whether to continue their clan’s deep-rooted traditions, or to fall as far as possible from the family tree.
The image of the leaf’s watery journey also subtly acknowledges and advertises the film’s derivativeness (from the Latin for ‘downstream’). For We Are What We Are is a remake – and yet if Jorge Michel Grau’s 2010 original was a confronting satire of dog-eat-dog rapacity in a Mexican city, then Mickle (Stake Land) and his co-writer Nick Damici have sensibly recognised that you cannot step into the same river twice, and so instead taken their received materials down an uncharted tributary or two into new territories.
The central premise – which won’t be spoiled here – remains the same, but everything else has changed. Gone is Grau’s urban setting (and with it, his biting social commentary), replaced with small-town backwoods and some good ole American gothic (including flashbacks to the pioneering days and the Parker ancestors’ first taste for concocted ritual). Sex, too, has been inverted here – for where Grau’s film concerned the vacuum and potential for change created by the sudden death of a father in a family run along strictly patriarchal lines, here it is the death of the mother that drives the plot, and it is her daughters who are expected to take her place – although father Frank (Bill Sage) certainly remains a figure of frightening authority.
“Daddy, what if we were different?” asks Iris, “if we weren’t like what we are?” The Parkers are different, and are what they are – stalwart survivors in a community where young women often go missing. Yet for all their faith, passed down as a legacy – or curse – from generation to generation, Iris and Rose still dream of a life in which they could be “like everyone else”. With secrets in the closet, bodies in the backyard and ‘monsters’ in the cellar, they must continue putting food on the table – and so, despite the film’s aqueous motifs of rain, showers, floods and tears, here in the end blood runs thicker than water. Even if (some of) the Parkers manage to depart from their ancestral home, they can no longer help being who they are, and bring their old roots right with them to be transplanted into new soil. One might almost say they remake themselves.
© Anton Bitel