Re:View: ‘We Are What We Are’
Remakes of films are usually disastrous. The worst examples I can think of are Hollywood’s awful ‘The Vanishing’ and ‘Night Watch’, spun out of their Dutch and Danish originals. But occasionally someone comes along and gets it right. I thought the anglicised ‘Let Me In’, from ‘Let The Right One In’, was very good, although it basically followed the original with some added money shots.
Watching the US director interviewed about his remake of the Mexican ‘Somos lo que hay’/’We Are What We Are’, I thought he made a smart decision, deciding to film a companion piece to the original rather than man exact replica in a different language. So how is it different?
The original is down and dirty, set on the very mean streets of Mexico City, where a man can die against a shop window and all that will happen is that someone comes out to clean the glass. After the death of their patriarch, his destitute family tries to continue a ritualistic tradition of kidnapping and eating humans. It’s a parable of modern society, political in its implications, a relentless and astoundingly sad indictment of where the lower end of society finds itself, without being anywhere near as graphically violent as you’d expect, and it packs a hell of a punch.
Their condition has no explicable cause; it’s an unpleasant chore they’ve always been forced to carry out, but the times are changing (signified by the wall of clocks in their house) and they cannot last like this much longer. It’s as much about loyalty and the old ways dying as it is about the poverty trap.
But how do you remake it for an economically more fortunate audience? Director Jim Mickle decided to depoliticise and humanise the story, relocating it to a rainswept rural community – but he hasn’t defanged the themes, merely changed them to questions of freedom, responsibility and religion. He has also switched the sexes around, as befits a story set in the more matriarchal US, and added a detection element that works surprisingly well.
The ritualised act of killing is not shown until the very end, and makes for a superbly extended build-up. It also asks questions that the Mexican version did not address; should the children unquestioningly carry on the rituals of their parents and share their beliefs? The cerebral notion of cannibalism makes more sense in a country which has the fate of the Donner Party ion the back of its collective mind.
It’s a terrifically well realised production, with only some awkward flashbacks providing unnecessary explanation. The young sisters struggling with their parents’ dilemma manage to be angelic and at times terrifying. Their clothes suggest pioneer women straight from a Willa Cather novel, and there’s a strain of softly spoken puritanism that mitigates the disturbing subject matter.
You can watch both and find two very different angles on the same material – I think in this case I may even prefer the remake.