Studio: The Weinstein Company
Director: Pascal Laugier
Writer: Pascal Laugier
Producer: Richard Grandpierre
Stars: Morjana Alaoui, Mylene Jampanoi, Catherine Begin, Robert Toupin, Patricia Tuslane, Juliette Gosselin, Isabelle Chasse, Emilie Miskdjian, Xavier Dolan-Tadros
15 years after escaping captivity, a young woman enlists her only friend to help track down the people responsible for her torment.
Deep beneath a crumbling and forgotten industrial warehouse, Lucie lives a hellish childhood of imprisonment and torture. At last able to escape her restraints and flee into rescue, things begin improving physically for the young girl, though not at all mentally. Orphaned alongside her only trusted friend Anna, Lucie grows up haunted by nightmarish visions of a feral being determined to tear at her flesh.
15 years later, Lucie’s pain is far from healed and her ordeal is far from over. With some reluctant encouragement from Anna, Lucie sets out for revenge against her previously unidentified captors. That act sets off a chain reaction leading both women into an inferno of insanity neither of them could have ever thought possible.
The summary above covers only the first 15 minutes of the 98-minute “Martyrs.” Going further than that initial premise would not only serve as a spoiler, it would also take the rest of this review just to recount all of the ground tread during writer/director Pascal Laugier’s unpredictable journey of heart-pounding horror.
“Martyrs” takes so many turns and flips expectations so many times that all equilibrium is eventually obliterated. The only option for regaining balance is to give one’s self over completely to the film by putting full faith in whatever Laugier has planned.
Already horrifying in its initial depiction of a chained child incurring unthinkable abuse, “Martyrs” continues shaking senses with a nerve-rattling shotgun assault uniquely devoid almost entirely of music. Actions allow inherent terror to speak for itself. Artificial atmosphere enhancers are unnecessary.
The film’s first hour is relentless in its emotional devastation. Captivity with unending torture when no one knows where you are is unrivaled as a chilling concept. “Martyrs” ripples back to recollections of true crime enslavement atrocities committed by Josef Fritzl and Ariel Castro, or the kidnapping of Colleen Stan. Even with sensationalized carnage and a fantasized feral female occasionally on the attack, there is frightening realism in how “Martyrs” portrays macabre cruelty with astonishing starkness.
There’s nothing funny about the violence on display, but it isn’t played to be exploitive either. With slasher masks off and one-liners silenced, “Martyrs” reminds how horror can be escapist entertainment without being entertaining in the traditional sense.
At almost exactly the 60-minute mark, the film rounds one more corner that calms down the ferociousness for the last act. The final twist having turned, the story has nowhere left to run but towards its conclusion, making for a simultaneous sense of disappointment that the wild ride is now on a rail and perhaps “this is it?” frustration over the plot picking its particular path.
This review has the benefit of having digested others’ thoughts on “Martyrs” beforehand, providing perspective on why a motion picture hailed as a modern masterpiece by some, a notion I might support, is reviled as disgusting by others. Given the bloodshed and brutality onscreen, “Martyrs” is understandably not an easy pill for all tastes to swallow. It has been accused of misogyny too, although the story offers an explanation anyone can take or leave regarding the specific role gender plays in the fiction.
Some have taken the ultimate revelation of the title’s meaning as either a puzzler or a letdown. Perhaps as someone raised Catholic, I find the idea Pascal Laugier presents and the cabal built around it to be fascinating in an almost ludicrous way. I can’t help but smirk with wonder at how his imagination ever dreamt of something so delirious in the first place.
Since the pace slows to arrive at this final reveal, it is simple to see how patience can be tried by a repetitive denouement that doesn’t equal the same intensity level as the film’s first two-thirds. I’d argue that this monotony is essential for illustrating what martyrdom means for the movie. Which turns out to be an idea as perversely bizarre as everything else about the film, confirming “Martyrs” as a spellbinding stunner unlike anything else in genre cinema.
Review Score: 90