Tuesday, July 15, 2014

We Are What We Are: Communion

Remakes are common in film. Especially (although not exclusively) in horror film. It’d be easy to decry it as part of some creative bankruptcy (see also sequels), but it’s probably more about hedging bets. You can take a chance on a new and untested idea or you can trot out a new iteration of something that worked the last time (that these are often things that started off as new and untested ideas often escapes the people making these decisions, but turnover in the upper levels of the film industry seems to be pretty brutal) for a guaranteed return. Now, it’s probably not a 100% guaranteed return - plenty of sequels and reboots/reimaginings/refloggings of a dead horse don’t make the bank that the studio expected, but still, sometimes you gotta sit your ass down and grind a few safe hands. It’s part of doing business.

Honestly, I can sort of appreciate the logic (even if it makes me itch from a creative standpoint), and there are plenty of instances where the remake turned out reasonably well or even better in some ways. What doesn’t happen very often is a case where a remake makes some really interesting and programmatic changes from the original and comes out the other side as an interesting product on its own.

Yet, that is exactly what has happened in the case of We Are What We Are. Even more interestingly, it seems to share some of the same shortcomings as the film it remakes, for somewhat different reasons.

We open on a gray, rainy day in rural New York, on a woman driving into town to run some errands. She seems a little fidgety and uncomfortable. She picks up some supplies - a flashlight, rope, some tarp - and heads back out to her pickup truck. She stops by a bulletin board to look at a missing-person poster. And, as promptly and naturally as she paid for the goods, blood begins pouring from her nose and she falls flat on her back, insensate, into a pool of water, dead before she hit the ground.

She is (or was) Emma Parker, wife to Frank, mother to Iris, Rose, and Rory Parker, and she has left the family in a bit of a lurch. She was out trying to secure food for her family when she died, and now this responsibility falls, as tradition dictates, to oldest daughter Iris. It’s not just a matter of picking up groceries, this is a traditional meal, one accompanied by days of fasting and ceremony. One that is necessary to keep the Parkers from becoming sick, as they understand it, as was the case for their parents, and their parents’ parents, going back centuries.

One that will require Iris and Frank to make good use of a tire iron, ropes, tarp, and the hidden room beneath the shed.

This movie is a remake of the Mexican film Somos Lo Que Hay, but although it keeps the basic story intact - the death of the primary provider, a ticking clock, and the family’s terrible secret - it systematically inverts most, if not all of the particulars of the original. Instead of being set in the hot, crowded confines of Mexico City, it’s set in overcast, spacious, emphatically rural upstate New York. Instead of the father dying and leaving his family destitute from squandering his earnings on prostitutes, the mother dies, leaving the family bereft emotionally, but not broke. Instead of two sons who keep falling short for their own reasons and a youngest daughter who has the most initiative even though she’s forbidden by custom from being the one to bring home a victim, there are two daughters who are equally competent, and a younger brother who basically functions as an innocent in all of this. The original was frenetic, the desperation of a family trying to avoid poverty and getting food on the table as both ritual and necessity. The remake is careful and deliberate in its pacing, an exercise in how this night is different from all other nights.

Another important shared trait between the two films is the degree to which they examine gender through events. In the original, women were forbidden from hunting, even though they were the only ones with the determination to get it one. One son couldn’t stop thinking with his dick, and the other was chafing against family responsibility as he grappled with his sense of self as a closeted gay man in a culture that prizes machismo. It was a fairly adversarial treatment, with everyone straining against expectations.

The remake doesn’t really take this angle at all, but instead it does some interesting things with the idea of caretaking and providing for family. I find this especially interesting, because in some lines of gender research, the traits typically ascribed to women and to femininity as an idea are described as traits of communion, in the sense of interpersonal caretaking and nurturance. Of course, communion also describes the idea of attaining oneness with another, as well as the act of consuming the transubstantiated flesh of Christ, the first sacrifice. Eat of this bread, it is my body.

So all of the people around whom this story revolves are taking care of someone and missing someone. They’re dealing with the need to care for others in the face of loss. The Parkers care for each other and miss their wife and mother, the town doctor who takes care of Emma’s body misses his daughter, the handsome deputy who helps the doctor (and is sweet on Iris) misses his dad. All of these actions are held pretty much in equilibrium. Everyone does what they must to care for those whom they love, it's just that some things carry a heavier price than others. There are clear parallels between scenes of the doctor doing the autopsy on Emma Parker and her daughters preparing a body for butchering - each is doing what is necessary, what is prescribed and has been so for centuries. It’s what we do. We take care of our own.

It’s a somber and stately movie, almost too much so at times. The original felt so hectic that it seemed more distracting than anything else, and so any real sense of tension dissipated in the face of shrill insistence. It was an interesting movie, but not an especially scary one. The remake inverts that as much as anything else, and the overcorrection is equally problematic. It’s not an unusually long movie, but the stoicism of the characters and the deliberate pace make it feel a lot longer than it actually is, and this contributes to a relative lack of tension (some of which may be due to my familiarity with the story from the original, to be fair - there weren’t too many surprises for me) for the first three-quarters of the movie or so. It does pay off in the end, in some pretty shocking ways completely different from the original, but it takes its sweet time getting there, so when all of the other shoes drop in the back half of the last act, it feels a little jarring, even though it’s startling and effective. It's the slowest of slow burns, an iced-over lake where the cracks begin slowly, then spread, until finally in the last 20 minutes all gives way as understandings converge, and reckoning comes in a horrible communion.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Available on Netflix

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