Being Film #8 in Hail Horror 4
NOTE: MARTYRS is a film that works best if you go in completely fresh. So I'm going to keep things as brief and spoiler-free as possible. The best thing to do is just stop reading this review, check out the film, and come back, provided you have the stomach for it.
When it comes to horror films, there are those that make you scream and laugh at the same time, and when you leave the theater you have a smile on your face. It may have grossed you out, but it was all in good fun. There are plenty of good, scary films like that, and that's perfectly okay. But there's another type of horror film, the one that creeps under your skin and festers, never really going away, making you scratch and tear at your skin because it's just so unsettling.
MARTYRS is a lot like that. It deals with some pretty disturbing subject matter, and crafts a brilliant jewel of a film that constantly keeps you off balance, working as an outright horrific story, a crazed thriller, and a meditation on guilt, vengeance, and enlightenment. It's also one of the most brutal films I've ever seen, making each act of violence so gut-churning the last thing you're going to want to do is laugh.
The movie opens with a young girl, Lucie, escapes from an abandoned building, where she's been chained, starved and, judging from her appearance, physically abused as well. Director Pascal Laugier immediately puts you right in the face of the unpleasantness, giving MARTYRS a very gritty but professional realism, never shying away from Lucie's abject fear as she runs half naked through the deserted industrial section where she was being held.
Once found she's cared for in an orphanage where, despite everyone's best efforts, she can't quite adjust after her horrible experience, the details of which are not revealed. She does make friends with Anna, a sweet girl who shortly becomes her inseparable twin. Through Anna we begin to see that the lingering effects of Lucie's imprisonment might be far worse than anyone thought. Something seems to be stalking her, something that has a purpose...
From there MARTYRS jumps head 15 years, and MARTYRS really begins, as we see what's become of Lucie and Anna. It's hard to say much more than that. The movie deals with Lucie's guilt and anger over what happened to her, and Anna's eventual discovery of what exactly did happen, and why. Where the film ultimately goes is a complete 180 from where you think it'll go, and it's a ton of credit to Laugier, who not only directed but wrote the film, and refuses to take any shortcuts in the story. When he kills someone in this film it is horrible, even when it seems entirely justified based on the mechanics of the story. There's no cheering as someone gets their comeuppance, Laugier wants you see the terrible impact of death, which in turn affects the latter part of the story where things begin to get truly weird.
Everything in MARTYRS has a purpose, and Laugier pays as much attention to the development of Lucie and Anna as he does to the set pieces and gore. Although, that's a pretty easy thing to do when you have some amazing actresses in the roles, and Mylène Jampanoï as Lucie and Morjana Alaoui as Anna are both revelations in the film. They carry the film on their shoulders, and I'd be hard pressed to think of a film, horror or otherwise, that asks for more from its actresses.
To continue talking about MARTYRS would be to risk giving too much away, and this is a film that works best going in without knowing too much of what you're getting into. Not for the squeamish, I'll just end by saying that this is an excellent film, well-crafted, well-acted, and terrifying to boot. Not content to leave when the credits roll, MARTYRS lingers under your skin for a long time, and is without a doubt one of the scariest and best horror films I've seen in a long time.