Sunday, 11 May 2014

We Are What We Are


Christianity and cinema have had one hell of a rocky relationship. Things start nicely enough as Hollywood makes the effort for a few first dates, producing some inoffensive biblical epics. Things start to fall apart when it comes to taking things a step further. Rather than Hollywood softly suggesting that they might have a few slight sexual quirks, Mel Gibson turns up in the bedroom one night wearing a full PVC body suit, ball gagged and tied to a cross with a cat o' nine tails between his buttocks. 

Most of the time horror has dealt with faith rather sympathetically, even films like The Exorcist and The Devils, although managing to blaspheme at every turn, still play on the pro-Christian view of Devil bad - God good. As an atheist myself I still can’t shake that fascination with fire and brimstone and the romantic horror stories that come with it. Recently however, film makers have taken to really sticking the boot in to the pious, helped massively by the media’s attention on extremist nutcases like the Westboro Baptist Church. Kevin Smith’s Red State and Ti West’s upcoming - The Sacrament focus on Christian extremists as caricatures of violently deluded defenders of faith and tradition.
We Are What We Are is an American remake of a Mexican film; Somos lo que hay (which I have not seen) and could easily fit in to the same category as Red State if it wasn’t for its lightness of touch. After the sudden death of their mother, Iris (Ambyr Childers) and younger sister Rose (Julia Garner) are left coping with their grief whilst trying to care for their father; Frank (Bill Sage) and younger brother (Jack Gore). Just to make things more difficult, this tragedy happens right on the eve of a bizarre ritual, born from family history and exacerbated by religious piety, in which the family collectively starve themselves.
Triple spoon? Now that's impressive.
Things build slowly and subtly throughout the entire story, with clues piling on top of each other as the town’s doctor; Doc Barrow played wonderfully by Michael Parks, uncovers strange remains after a flood devastates the town. The cinematography (Ryan Samul) is wonderful, the surroundings look beautiful throughout and there is a wonderfully over romantic portrayal of small town American life. It’s a place where the local sheriff has to get his boots and hands dirty, everybody knows everybody's name and romances play out like old movies. It would be hell to live there but even though we only see a few select locations, the town itself takes on a character of its own. Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner are fantastic as the young girls who are unwilling slaves to tradition and family principles. They tackle the trauma of dealing with their mother’s death and the fact that their brother is starving in front of their eyes with stoic deference, constantly asking why they don’t’ just stop and refuse to carry on, but too downtrodden to do anything about it. The whole film is very quiet, the two girls hardly ever lifting above a whimper, until Bill Sage’s portrayal of a patriarchal figure crumbling under weight of his grief occasionally snaps and his voice booms through the silence.

We Are What We Are doesn’t take a pop at religion in the same way as Red State. The family’s twisted traditions come from personal heritage not religious scripture and although they still turn to their faith for confirmation that they are right in the wrong they are doing, it is by no means the fundamental extremism seen elsewhere. 
If anything it is maybe a victim of its own subtlety, with occasional moments seeming to fit poorly within the films atmosphere. Michael Park’s Doc Brown plays an important role as the unwitting detective, investigating his dog’s discovery of some mysterious bones. His detective work peaks with a Dr. House style diagnosis revelation. This reveals the likely explanation for mysterious disappearances in the town over the last few decades, which include that of his daughter. It is a pretty big diagnosing stretch and one realised on very little evidence, it is a shame it breaks the brooding tension of the rest of the film.
The ending also doesn’t quite pay off the way it feels it should. The final stand-off between Frank and the Doc felt like it was leading up to a brilliant Tarantino-esque dialogue, where the words would carry more weight than an action set-piece could. Unfortunately it falls just short and instead descends into an exchanging of blows and a Jason Voorhees style blood drenched rampage complete with arms smashing through doors and windows. The very final moments are wonderfully bizarre and violent, gory but understated with a nice mix of disturbing reality and absurdity; I just wish they had followed something less generic.
This is not a blood splattering horror film and instead attempts to work on a psychological level in order to get under your skin. It is the concept of what they are doing that is meant to be disturbing, not the finer gory details of just how they do it. Unfortunately it just misses the target of that very ambitious idea. We Are What We Are is very, very close to being something really spectacular. Even though there is little to complain about for some reason it just doesn’t fit together. There is some unexplainable spark absent that could have maybe been ignited by another director or is maybe there in the Mexican original.
I have very purposely tried to stay away from mentioning the films central concept because, even though many people place it in the films synopsis, the build up to it is so slow and mysterious that it almost seems to count as a spoiler. This film does not treat human life as a throwaway concept just for cheap thrills. 
The main source of its horror is in it’s down to earth treatment of a very shocking subject matter. Knowing the dark secret that the family was keeping before I had seen the film, I found myself slightly disappointed to know what was coming and was a bit more blasé about the whole thing than I would have liked. If you don’t know that secret then I highly recommend seeing this film and maybe its flaws may be much more forgivable or that spark of greatness will still be there. Seeing it as I did I found myself interested but ultimately disappointed. If anything it has made me want to watch the original, maybe there were simply some elements that got lost in translation.


  1. Did you know you can shorten your links with Shortest and get cash for every click on your shortened links.