We Are What We Are is simultaneously better than it has any right to be, and far less interesting than it should be. At first glance, this is a genre piece through and through, and one wouldn’t be unreasonable in expecting something along the lines of House at the End of the Street –– especially since it is a remake of a three year old Mexican film. But it tries to be better, putting effort into making a beautiful image and getting compelling performances from its talent. Unfortunately, it neglects to tell a more interesting story, and no amount of window dressing can hide its lack of imagination.
In a small American town of the sort with two lawmen and a single doctor, the Parker family has largely kept to itself, with the family patriarch Frank (Bill Sage) intent on keeping their secretive family traditions intact. But when tragedy strikes, daughters Rose (Julia Garner) and Iris (Ambyr Childers) are suddenly burdened with the responsibility of supporting the family through unconventional means. Meanwhile, an unrelenting torrential downpour begins to uncover clues to mysterious disappearances that have haunted the area for decades –– clues that threaten to tear the family apart.
The film certainly tries to impress. The visuals are lovely, the performances are largely exemplary (especially from the immensely talented Michael Parks as the local doctor), and the movie even takes a shot at symbolism. The biblical downpour and the zealous devotion to a destructive family tradition are quite obviously no accident. But if there is an attempt to make a statement about the dangers of holding on to ancient traditions rooted in the ignorance of antiquity, it loses a bit of its modern relevance by having that tradition be (SPOILERS!) cannibalism. Likening religious fanaticism with cannibalism is a bit excessive, though the notion of a coming of age story involving human chili certainly has promise.
The movie’s failings are in the bones, though, which a topical makeover and thematic ambition can’t fix. It’s not that the story is particularly dimwitted, but rather that it is so slavishly generic. To anyone familiar with this genre, you can see ninety percent of the plot points coming a mile away, even down to the silly details. A dog starts barking and clawing at the ground? That’s because it found human bones. A town doctor who just won’t let the mysterious disappearances go? Well, turns out his daughter was one of the people who went missing –– and of course there’s a scene where the two local sheriffs (one of them a young rookie, naturally) tell the doctor to let bygones be bygones because, clearly, there are more important things to do in this town than solve the only case they have. Even the film’s finale follows the traditional structural requirements of seesawing the fortunes of the protagonists in the last ten minutes. You think they’re going to get saved, but surprise, not yet!
There isn’t much in the way of character development, either. It’s impossible to define these characters without also stating their role or referencing a plot point. It’s not enough to put children in dire circumstances, or to give a character a tragic past; the audience must also have an understanding of who these people are, to get to know their personality as the film unfolds in order to truly care about their fate. Genre pieces must either tell a good story or have compelling characters in order to interest non-purists. There’s nothing wrong with hitting familiar beats, so long as they are made to feel fresh. Unfortunately, the only interesting things in the film are also the least important. What good is a pretty picture and a talented cast with a dull story and forgettable characters?