Pascal Laugier’s 2008 Martyrs is often considered one of the most brutal films ever made. A thoroughly upsetting, immeasurably graphic depiction of human suffering wrought in real time—with something like a half an hour of near-dialogue-less torture—Laugier’s film seems designed to interrogate the audience, to push viewers so far as to wonder aloud what the actual purpose is of witnessing such visceral depravity, simulated or not. Are there any true benefits to obscenity?, it asks, threatening over and over to tip from the grotesque into the pornographic. That in the end the film is left ambiguous is almost an indictment on Laugier’s part, resembling formal experiments like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games: You sat passively through all of that, he chastises. You refused to quit. And for what?
While the American remake of Martyrs shares much of the same plot as its predecessor, gone is the ambiguity and the accusation—and much of the brutality, to be honest. Instead, directed by brothers Kevin and Michael Goetz, the new Martyrs compromises on every level, ultimately coming off as pretty much just a feminine take on The Passion of the Christ. Yes: It is that stupid, that ugly and that pointless.
Troian Bellisario—of Pretty Little Liars fame, in which she is inarguably the best actor on set (better, believe it or not, than even Chad Lowe)—plays Lucy, a woman who as a child escaped an ill-defined traumatic situation to befriend Anna (Bailey Noble as an adult) and learn to operate as a functional human being. When we catch up with the friends 10 years after Lucy escapes, we’re confronted with a picture-perfect middle class family who, upon answering the door one picture-perfect morning, is murdered by Lucy, all grown up and out for revenge. Putting down the shotgun, and done with deliriously crying for a bit, Lucy calls her still-best-friend Anna to confess that she finally found her torturers, and she needs help burying the bodies. Anna arrives, horrified (duh), but still not convinced Lucy found the right family. That is, until she discovers an underground facility and a gang of thugs show up to continue what they began with Lucy 10 years earlier.
What follows would generally fall into the category of “harrowing,” though the American remake neuters much of 2008’s most shocking bits. (And since we can’t really talk about Martyrs without spoiling it, then heed this warning: Spoilers follow—though there will be nothing in this review to recommend anyone actually watch this thing.) From death via mallet to the aforementioned extended torture sequence, the 2008 Martyrs unflinchingly subverted all audience expectations regarding typical slasher fare, taking tropes and beating them into smithereens. Laugier’s idea, it seemed, was to literally strip away (care of some gruesome scenes of flaying) the idea that the victim has her punishment coming, even if the morality behind that idea, as in most slasher films, is suspect (i.e., because she engaged in premarital sex, is a hussy, etc.). In Martyrs, victims are ostensibly good, innocent people who deserve nothing in the way of such extreme pain—chaos definitely reigns.
To their credit, the Goetz brothers direct this Martyrs remake without any desire in inflicting undue suffering on the audience, framing some scenes, in fact, with what could be construed in any other movie as a modicum of taste, generally leaving the depravity outside the screen, relegated to distant screams and guttural howls rooms away from the camera’s focus. So then, what’s the point? All blame falls to screenwriter Mark L. Smith who, among a few forgettable flicks, co-wrote The Revenant with Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Yup—somehow the man who worked closely with an Oscar winning director wrote this abhorrent abyss of ideas, demonstrating no actual conception or understanding of what Laugier was maybe trying to accomplish with his original film. Granted, this remake has been in development for a few years, and so maybe this was written long before Smith had more experience under his belt, but the story so widely misses the mark—while succeeding in offering no character development, spatial logic, or spiritual flavor whatsoever—that not even a decade of development would have done much of anything to rectify this literal bloody mess.
Quick note of contextualization: While in the original Martyrs, the leader of the torture cult, Mademoiselle (Catherine Bégin), explains to Anna (Morjana Alaoui) that all of their actions are intended to help a chosen girl transcend her physical trappings to glimpse, in her martyrdom (natch), what lies beyond death, their plans are thwarted when Anna, who does survive the torture and essentially does transcend, whispers something to Mademoiselle which drives her to suicide, leaving the rest of the cult members without a leader or an answer to the question that justified so much of their godless actions. In the remake, Lucy survives to become the chosen one, and Anna survives as well, though in Lucy’s final moments Anna escapes her torturers, kills many of them, kills the American Madame (Kate Burton, tragically underused) before she can learn what Lucy’s seen, and then joins Lucy on the sacrificial altar as together they (I guess?) transcend to a higher plane of existence, spurred to enlightenment by their terrible circumstances. In other words, while the original Martyrs questions whether such cinematic cruelty is anything but obscene, the American Martyrs, though much more obliquely violent, insists that all of the cruelty was worth it. Because both characters do exactly what their torturers want them to do, which is to transcend their corporeal vessels in some sort of grand spiritual manner, the American remake affords its audience the revenge fantasy they want while ensuring observers that—like in The Passion of the Christ—all of that brutality wasn’t for naught.
The Goetz brothers and Smith have, in attempting to provide Americans a way into a cult French classic, created its polar opposite, crafting something as dumb as an Eli Roth film with only a quarter of the chutzpah. Martyrs is a film that wants you to believe it doesn’t revel in its own depravity, but there’s little evidence it has anything else on its mind. If this is punishment, now we just need to figure out for what. Probably for nominating The Revenant for so many Oscars.
Directors: Kevin and Michael Goetz
Writer: Mark L. Smith
Starring: Troian Bellisario, Bailey Noble, Kate Burton
Release Date: January 22, 2016
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Since he grew up in the Detroit area, it is required by law that his favorite movie is Robocop. You can follow him on Twitter.