The official synopsis for Martyrs is “A young woman’s quest for revenge against the people who kidnapped and tormented her as a child leads her and a friend, who is also a victim of child abuse, on a terrifying journey into a living hell of depravity,” which doesn’t begin to prepare you for what you’re about to witness.
Upon reading that description I figured I would be in for a little bit of torture and some good old fashioned revenge killing. I grabbed a cold beer and kicked back. I was ready to enjoy the ride into one of the most talked about French horror movies and, after seeing Incident in a Ghostland last year, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect from director Pascal Laugier. I was dead ass wrong on all accounts.
First off, the “revenge flick” portion of this film is finished within the first ten or fifteen minutes and it is done so well. An average family’s breakfast is interrupted by a knock at the door and then the shotgun comes out. This is another one of those where the killing is done almost out of necessity. It’s quick, brutal, bloody, and very matter of fact. There’s a little bit of cat and mouse and then it’s all over. This left me staring at my screen wondering where this movie was going to go next.
There were actually several moments of the film where I was left wondering where it was going to go followed by being surprised by the developments. In a time when most movies, even the fucked up ones, are pretty predictable Martyrs is refreshing in how many surprising turns it takes. I’m not going to get into the whole plot of the movie because I don’t want to rob you of the surprise. I will say that this movie, while it has its moments of violence, is more concerned with the psychological aspects of terror than just straight forward torture or brutality.
There is more to enjoy here than the plot that keeps you guessing, though. The performances are on point, the practical effects are incredible, and this film is absolutely beautiful. From the sets to the cinematography to the effects Martyrs is damn near perfect. Much like Incident in a Ghostland and High Tension (the length and breadth of my French Extremity experience) this film contrasts brutal acts of violence and depravity with the warm family home and top notch cinematography. Which, when combined with the stellar performances from the leads and the believable oncscreen suffering, makes Martyrs, and films like it, more of an experience than just another fucked up movie movie.
The phrase “journey into a living hell of depravity” in the synopsis may be fitting for what our protagonists experience but it doesn’t do justice to what the viewer experiences. There are very few bright spots in this film. Upon finishing it, I referred to it as a bottomless pit of despair. I think that is much more fitting. Martyrs is tense, violent, nihilistic, and at times pretty frightening in its own way. Again, it wasn’t what I was expecting at all but I am absolutely in love with this film.
I’m going to get a little philosophical with you for just a minute here, Dear Reader. Beyond honestly enjoying them, I think I’ve pinpointed the reason I watch so many fucked up movies. Like most horror fans, I don’t really get scared by movies anymore. Once in a great while, I’ll come across something that is genuinely spooky that might get under my skin for a little while but that’s about it. With movies like this there’s something that I can equate to the fear I used to feel as a kid watching scary movies. The only way I can describe it is that I come away feeling empty, like the movie takes a little piece of my soul with it when the credits roll. It probably sounds dumb, but I really like that. It’s kind of like the adult version of the visceral fear we all felt as kids, I think. Honestly, I had been missing that for awhile. Even with the movies I’ve been watching for this series, I haven’t found one that takes a piece of me with it until I watched Martyrs. This film gave me that visceral emptiness that I’ve been craving. That’s not the only reason I am such a big fan of this film but it didn’t hurt.
My favorite part of this movie is the ending. Like many other times in this film, I had no idea that it was going to go in the direction that it did. I’m not going to give it away. I will, however, tell you that I think this was the darkest and most nihilistic ending possible. The rest of the movie had laid a tight hold on a small piece of my soul and the ending ripped it free. It was a pleasantly surprising look into the depths of the void.
All in all, would I recommend this film? Did you read the rest of the review? Fuck yes I would. I’m kind of bummed out that it took me so long to finally watch it. If you do decide to check it out do yourself a favor and watch the French version, apparently the remake does not do this film justice in the least. Seek this film out and take your journey to the depths of suffering. You won’t regret it.