Here is a cinema rarity: an American remake that surpasses the foreign language original. In my review of Mexican Director’s Jorge Michel Grau’s Somos Lo Que Hay (We are What We Are) I wrote that the film would, “ten years ago, be categorised as a slasher-horror movie without a second thought.
Now, there’s the possibility it can be elevated to the status of a very dark social satire.” Stomach-turning though it may be, there are no doubts about the classification of Director and Co-Writer (with Nick Damici) Jim Mickie’s We Are What We Are, which overcomes the shortcomings of Grau’s feature debut.
The floods in upstate New York that form the underlying current to the film might bring the ominous setting closer to our rain-drenched shores; but nothing will prepare you for Parker family. The Parkers run a caravan park on the outskirts of this green, sleepy town. Business is bad, but it suits Frank Parker’s desire for privacy.
The film opens with Mrs Parker spitting blood outside a local shop and collapsing, hitting her head and drowning in a muddy puddle. Husband Frank (Bill Sage, American Psycho) is devastated, perhaps less over his wife’s death than over the loss of the woman who took charge of his family’s traditional Lamb’s Day Festival. The ceremony is what holds the family together and justifies Frank’s predatory, and unhealthy, lifestyle.
Brainwashed into believing that God will punish those who do not observe the Festival, Frank’s beautiful, 17-year-old daughter, Iris (Ambyr Childers) reluctantly assume her mother’s role. The Nature vs Nurture debate is alive and well here as younger sister Rose (Julia Garner) shows signs of rebellion. Eventually, though, she helps out Iris in the basement where a neighbour, Mrs Stratton, will be carved up like a piece of choice beef.
Despite their isolation, the Parkers have links to the community that all parties will come to regret. Hunky young Deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell) and Iris are clearly attracted to one another, but Frank discourages his daughter’s sexual awakening in no uncertain terms. More threatening than Anders is Doc Barrow (Michael Parks) the town’s Coroner whose daughter disappeared many years before in mysterious circumstances.
When Barrow’s autopsy on Mrs Parker reveals the onset of a form of Parkinson’s Disease and human bones are found in a riverbed near the CaravanPark, the audience is involved in a tense race against the clock, as Barrow enlists Anders to help him with his research. Barrow discovers that the bones show signs of a rare form Prion’s Disease (a distant cousin of Parkinson’s) found in tribal cultures in New Guinea.
Lucidly directed and carefully paced, the film is a convincing commentary, if not satire, on the religious fundamentalism that is endemic in parts of the USA. It is also an interesting study of parental brainwashing. Julia Garner, the talented actress who plays Rose, played a character from another religious extremist family in Elecktric Children, a low-budget American independent film from 2012. Like Rose, the character she played was sheltered from the real world and brought up to accept the reality that her parents imposed. On a brighter note, both Elecktric Children and We Are What We Are leave us with some hope that destructive family bonds can be broken.