Sunday, October 27, 2013

We Are What We Are (2013)

I make no bones about liking what i have termed "feel bad" movies. This can generally be covered by a torrential mass of different movie types and tropes. Films like Shotgun Stories, I Saw the Devil, the Divide, the Silence (German remake of the Ingmar Bergman classic), Martyrs, Graceland. All depressing, and undermining the viewer's spirit of positivity. So what's the appeal? Poignant or not, I'd describe it as such: I watch movies with the intention of deriving some impetus for emotion. Whether that be to laugh, cry, be thrilled, horrified, made paranoid, have my tenets lampooned, or leave the theater with my jaw agape and depressed as hell. Any movie that can stir up an emotion in me is laudable.

Jim Mickles' remake of the Spanish We Are What We Are is such a film of the feel-bad variety I alluded to. It's kind of enigmatic when considering Mickle's other films, Mulberry Street or Stakeland which at their heart were campy monster movies, while gritty and brutal were also actually a bit of fun. We Are What We Are is not fun. It is not a movie that I will view again, while I would like to see the Spanish original, if Mickle culled his flick from the source accurately I don't expect that I would be saying much different after viewing.

Now, please, and thank you for bearing with me here, don't mistake that for meaning I thought the film terrible. It is not terrible. It is in fact excellent. It's smartly written and photographed beautifully, taking full advantage of the rain and terrain. The locations are stellar; rustic, rural, old... a true American Gothic if I've ever seen one. Mickle's direction as well is fantastic. The handle that he maintains on his principle cast is superb, and he milks some truly excellent performances from the actors here.

The story as well, is engaging. Focusing on a reclusive family working its way through tragedy, still intent to carry on their traditions that have been passed down the generations since settling in the area. Facing torrential rain and flooding which results in evidence of the family's traditions being uncovered by townsfolk and the authorities. Mickle plays it doomy and harrowing, expertly building dread and disquiet and exploiting his location and the weather in his favor, resulting in a truly dour feature. The word gloom gets thrown around a lot, but it's perfectly fitting here, as the picture is intended to be relentlessly melancholic.

The star here is Michael Parks, given room to ACT that few directors have allowed, short of Kevin Smith or Tarantino/Rodriguez. He's about as natural an actor as you could ask for, and steals the show. His Doc Barrow is tragic but sympathetic, bent on vengeance but also empathetic. The scenes in which he's given little leash are the best, and ultimately the reason I'd revisit the film. Nearly as good is Bill Sage, a little known character actor who really shines in this picture. As the father of the family here, he projects torment and piousness in equal measure, but a man not completely without compassion himself. He irradiates an authority and strictness that you wouldn't want to cross. A righteous wrath, if you will, that is also balanced by grief and struggle. Really well done. Incredible as well are the dual performances of Julia Garner and Ambyr Childers, playing the daughters caught up in their father's madness and grief and unable to do anything about it. The characters to me were reminiscent of the stories of Nazi party members poisoning their elder children in the Wolf's Lair when the allies finally broke into Berlin, old enough to know their paths ended in doom but too young to resist. Gut wrenching, honestly.

So would I recommend it? That depends... it's often hard to stomach, brutally grim and bleak, and it's premise centers on a truly misanthropic act of cruelty performed by the family at the center of the story on a yearly basis. It is unrelentingly upsetting, as much for the calm and quietness of the characters as it is for the few moments of zealous alacrity and unflinching dogma, as confused and broken as it might be. The performances are fierce and brave, compelling and often gut wrenching, and the direction and cinematography are superb. There is no doubt that the end result here is exactly what Mickle wanted to make when he set out to film this movie, leaving viewers crushed and downtrodden and challenged at nearly every turn of the proceedings, nearly as much as his main characters. If any of that sounds appealing, then yes, I can wholeheartedly recommend it. This may be the seminal work in Mickle's resume, but don't mistake me for meaning it's in any way a fun or light film. Rather the opposite, and as I imagine intended as such, a complete success.

No comments: