(This review was written in May of 2013)
Let me begin this review with a little story. Back in 2008, I watched this French movie called High Tension and I decided that I rather liked the French horror genre. So I followed that up with Frontier(s), which had waaay more gore in it than I’m used to. That was sort of the signal to cut it out, but I didn’t pay it any attention to the little person on my shoulder that was trying to save me from irreversible mental images that I would search for a real life version of brain bleach to erase them. I was enjoying a new side of foreign film and thought the premise for Martyrs sounded interesting. So I checked it out.
I will never, ever, watch this movie again.
Once was enough.
However, my reason for not wanting to see it again is not because it’s a bad movie. It’s actually a brilliant film.
The comparison of violence I witnessed in the last, oh, half hour of Martyrs to the entirety of High Tension is ridiculous. Martyrs put me through the emotional wringer and left me feeling limp and sick to my stomach. I cried for, like, a solid hour after watching this movie. Messy, gross crying, too—none of that delicate “oh, let me dab at my eyes with this tissue” crap. Ugly, ugly, ugly crying.
It is a beautifully shot movie. It is extremely well-acted. The special effects are so good that one scene in particular just had me gaping in terror instead of wondering how they did it. You know that moment when an awesome stunt happens and you wonder to yourself “how did they do that? How much corn syrup did they end up using?” That never happened while I was watching Martyrs. I was just sucked in. The story had a hold on me and I believed what I was seeing.
And I never want to watch it again.
Here’s the IMDb summary:
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.
“Tormented” is such a light word for them to use. No, she was tortured. But don’t go comparing this in your head to Hostel or Saw. Those movies seem to celebrate their violence. Martyrs is shocking when the violence happens—there’s a moment when the main character shoots someone with a shotgun, and it’s very realistic. It’s not there to be celebrated, it’s there to be a part of the story that’s being told of this girl and her need for revenge and her only friend’s difficulty coping with it. There was no letting up in it at all. There are no moments of tension-breaking humor and no cutaways to secondary characters in a B plot. I actually wouldn’t call the violence “meaningless,” because there is a point to it; a story is being told about some terrible people who do terrible things for a specific reason to these girls.
I am only including a video for this particular movie because of how difficult it is to explain how good Martyrs is and how much I can’t make myself watch it again. SlimmBob here has a very similar reaction to my own. He also does a pretty good job of letting you know how hard it is to summarize the main story without spoiling major plot points and showing just how emotionally drained it can make you.
It is a powerful film. The narrative unfolds slowly and halfway through it one is left wondering where this could possibly be going and how on earth can it get any worse than it already has? Then it does. The main character is plunged into a situation that I will not delve deeper into to save those who are curious to watch it. Because of how the characters resonated deeply with me and I was so invested in both of their stories, I don’t think I can watch this happen to them again. But I do recommend it for it’s dramatic narrative. As far as story-telling goes, Martyrs weaves one hell of a tale that leaves the viewer thinking about the outcome for hours after you have turned the DVD player off.
As an avid horror film watcher, I am a poor gauge to measure how “gory” something is (after seeing so many I’ve gotten rather desensitized to the imagery and this, frankly, worries me). I’ll put it this way: emotionally, by the end of it all, I felt like curling into a dark corner and crying for a while (and, like I said, I did end up bawling for a some time). And yes, it is incredibly violent. The scenes in the last twenty to fifteen minutes were hard for me to watch, but I was just too transfixed (in the “oh god, oh god, oh god” sense of the word) to turn away.
There is talk about remaking Martyrs for the American audience with the producers of Twilight, and to that I say: “Pppffffttt. That’ll never happen.” [Edit from the future: I was so wrong.]
And I hope it doesn’t. Because a version of this movie that’s palatable to America’s current audience would be impossible to watch. They’d change the things that made the French version so chilling just to keep from offending anyone. They’d dumb it down. In fact, the guy they want to direct it, Daniel Stamm, said this:
“[The original film] is very nihilistic. The American approach [that I’m looking at] would go through all that darkness but then give a glimmer of hope. You don’t have to shoot yourself when it’s over.”
That whole “there is no hope” thing was kind of part of the whole movie, so… No. Just, no.
I can’t make myself recommend this one to everyone. It was an excellent example of filmmaking, but it was just so… If your curiosity has been piqued but you can’t make yourself watch something that will either make you feel utterly depressed or sick (and you don’t want to see clips of the gore in a spoiler review on YouTube), then go read Critical Dave’s review of it. If you can handle a movie that’s emotionally exhausting and very graphic? Do a little research on it first and watch it.
Here is the trailer: