Martyrs (2015)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2016-01-31 17:42

Written by: Mark L. Smith (screenplay), Pascual Laugier (characters)
Directed by: Kevin Goetz, Michael Goetz
Starring: Troian Bellisario and Bailey Noble

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

"Martyrs are so very rare--so very extraordinary..."

Of all the New French Extremity films from the past decade, Martyrs has arguably left the deepest impression. While many films from this era obviously made deep, visceral cuts, Pascal Laugier looked beyond mere acts of violence and engaged their transgressive—and perhaps transcendent—powers to explore disturbing existential spaces. Watching a group of cold-blood maniacs flay a girl alive is a horrifying, stomach-churning ordeal, yet it’s not what lingers most powerfully in the wake of Martyrs nearly 8 years later: rather, it’s the bleak, nihilistic suggestion that it’s in the service of absolutely nothing. This is Laguier engaging the torture porn label to its logical extreme: how could empty, sadistic violence still be rendered truly, soul-crushingly terrifying? Martyrs still answers that question emphatically: it’s an incredible film, yet its nihilism almost guarantees you’ll never want to watch it again.

In other words: good luck to the poor sod charged with remaking Martyrs for American audiences, right? Despite being in development shortly after Laguier’s film debuted, it’s only just now arrived from Kevin and Michael Goetz. For an optimistic person, such a long process is encouraging: maybe it took so long because tackling Martyrs is a tall task that requires introspection and caution; a more pessimistic person might offer that it took so long because it’s too tall of a task that no one in their right mind should even bother tackling. As it turns out, the pessimist’s worries are well-founded in the wake of a tepid retread that highlights the Catch-22 of remakes: like Laugier, the Goetz brothers arrive at pointlessness, but it’s of a different sort that leaves you wondering just why this film exists.

The story retains most of Laugier’s familiar beats, as it charts the hellish ordeal of Lucie, a young girl rescued from the clutches of a group that imprisoned and tortured her. Traumatized by the experience, she finds a glimmer of hope in the bond she forms with Anna, a fellow student at the Catholic school she winds up attending. Even this, however, cannot help her to overcome her demons as an adult, when she still feels compelled to track down and punish those responsible for her captivity—even if it means butchering what appears to be a perfectly average, suburban family in cold blood, an act that leads to her and Anna uncovering the unfathomable truth behind her childhood trauma.

Anyone familiar with the original Martyrs will hardly be surprised by any of these developments, recreated here mostly beat-for-beat as an almost abridged version of Laugier’s film. Clocking in nearly twenty minutes shorter than the original, the remake gives the impression of thumbing through a familiar story and hitting the important beats. The Goetz brothers almost seem to assume the audience’s familiarity, as they speed through the first half, during which you can practically hear them acknowledging as much: “we know you’ve already seen this shit, so let’s just move through it as quickly and painlessly as possible.”

Lost in this approach is the suffocating dread of the original. Martyrs is so airlessly suspenseful that you find yourself involuntarily holding your breath, gasping only at the bursts of violence that supply genuine jolts. This redux is breathless in different way, with its hurried pacing acting to hurtle the audience to the topsy-turvy second half that allows the film to wander into a different mode altogether. Of course, even this is largely familiar, so the film (perhaps through no fault of its own) inherently loses the original’s surprises: one of Laugier’s most unsung accomplishments with Martyrs is the sense of alienation and discovery engendered by leading the audience into unexpected twists and turns. One of the scariest things about Martyrs is that you have no clue what could inspire such horrors, and the answer is hardly conventional.

To be fair, this theoretically applies to re-watching Martyrs itself since surprises only work once; however, Laugier’s film remains rewarding through craftsmanship the remake doesn’t match. For much of the remake’s running time, this was the refrain in my head: “this is perfectly competent and not even all that offensive, yet I can’t fathom ever wanting to watch this over the original.” Certainly, there are worse fates for a remake to aspire to, and credit is due to the brothers Goetz for helming one that’s mostly effective enough to skate by without incident, at least for a little while.

Even if they’re working from a preexisting blueprint, they find the occasional haunting image, particularly once Anna begins to explore the horrors residing in the family’s basement. The juxtaposition between these images and their suburban façade suppressing them remains powerful in the translation to America, where we have an entire host of hypocritical religious zealots looking to run for office, even (I bet at least one GOP candidate has murder/torture basement in their home).

Speaking of Anna, Bailey Noble provides a fine turn in arguably the film’s key role; it goes without saying for those familiar with Martyrs that the role of Anna requires a strong, empathetic presence as the audience’s cipher. Like us, she’s an outsider unwittingly subjected to unspeakable terror, and Noble captures the right mixture of innocent, wide-eyed disbelief and the inevitable pluckiness required of her when—well, revealing this might actually reveal one of the few surprises this version of Martyrs has in store for its audience.

In an effort to tip-toe around the only possible spoilers for this remake, let’s just delicately say that Mark L. Smith’s screenplay just doesn’t get Martyrs. Most of the time he and the Goetz brothers are content to shadow box with Laugier’s film before they decide to pull punches. No one in their right minds would look at the third act of the original and consider it rousing, but I’ll be damned if they didn’t see it as an opportunity to transform it into a blood-soaked revenge story that misplaces the film’s tone and focus. Somebody decided what Martyrs really needs is shotgun blasts punctuated by a one-liner in place of the original’s haunting, climactic words (“keep doubting”). Ultimately, it does for Martyrs what the Last House on the Left remake did for Craven’s film by softening the rough edges. It has no desire to unsettle by blurring the lines between the macabre and the sublime through ambiguity, preferring instead to somehow find a sliver of optimism. It occurs to me that this might be a non-issue for anyone watching this story unfold for the first time, but I'm guessing even they will detect that the third act is an atonal cop-out.

Up until this misguided turn of events, Martyrs simply feels like a pointless retread, which may actually be preferable to downright missing the point. It’s here that Martyrs opens the Pandora’s Box that often swallows remakes: by changing nothing, they risk becoming dull retreads, while daring to diverge risks defeating the purpose. Sometimes, these films are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, especially when tackling something as singular as Martyrs. When the Goetzes are content to simply do the former, they somehow manage to render the grotesque shocks into a routine, a turn that’s briefly intriguing since it mirrors the mindsets of those perpetrating the carnage; rather than engage this, they deviate in the worst way possible. It’s not that they dare to stray—it’s that they barely do so by wandering off in the most obvious direction (in fact, in my review of the original from 2009, I wondered aloud if the ending wouldn’t be changed since the original’s is so bold and presumably unfit for American consumption).

Ultimately, the only surprise that remains is that it took so long for Martyrs to arrive in a somewhat bastardized form. That it can’t live up to the original is hardly shocking, so you would think that someone in the intervening eight years may have realized the pointlessness of the endeavor. Some people can’t help but pushing in an effort to find transcendent martyrs on the remake chopping block—even it just usually makes victims instead.

Martyrs arrives on Blu-ray from Anchor Bay with an 8-minute "First Look" segment serving as a supplement.

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