Martyrs is a unique horror movie. It dabbles in the tropes and traditions of the torture-porn genre (to adopt a misleading descriptor), but inverts the tone and structure. Instead of establishing characters and gradually accumulating dread, it opens in media res with a pre-pubescent girl fleeing in terror from unexplained imprisonment. Instead of giving the film’s victims respite in the last act through violent revenge, the film’s first act revolves around shocking acts of violence, only revealed as retribution in retrospect. It’s an effective deconstruction of audience expectations; by only framing early slaughter as revenge after-the-fact, it saps the film of the hypocritical catharsis that revenge films celebrate.
There’s an uncomfortable, brutal realism to the film’s opening; it’s a relief when the middle stretch slows down to provide shading to its story and characters. The last act, though, is where Martyrs reveals its true, provocative agenda. There’s no victory, nor the descent into misery that accompanies modern horror grasping for “grittiness.” Instead, the film ascends, reaching for something transcendental and spiritual. Whether it succeeds in that ascent will vary from viewer to viewer, but love it or hate it, it’s impossible to deny that the film is unlike anything else.