With her plain/cute bob, indie wear, and beat-up Honda, Wendy (Michelle Williams) could be any young woman you know. It will turn out that this is sort of the point. One thing that stands out right away, though, is that she’s good to her dog, Lucy—so scrupulous with walks and feeding and fetch that you recognize instantly that she has a good heart. That’s important information, too. It turns out, as writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy unfolds, that Lucy, the Honda, and a small wad of bills is about all Wendy has in this world. Making her way across country to one of those Alaskan cannery jobs legendary among wastrel twentysomethings, Wendy’s car breaks down in a small Oregon town. Then Lucy disappears. And like that, the thin veneer that keeps a nice middle-class girl from the abyss starts to flake away.
In her breakout feature, 2006’s taciturn bromance Old Joy, Reichardt relied on patience and restraint, underrated qualities in a filmmaker. Here, she and Williams conduct a master class in same. There’s nothing about Wendy or her situation that isn’t entirely plausible (Old Joy star Will Oldham’s distracting cameo as a loco drifter notwithstanding), and Reichardt does her best to maintain that feeling. She shoots almost documentary-style, letting the drama and the piercing anxiety of Wendy’s dilemma build naturally, the root realism making each inevitable turn of the plot all the more worrisome. Williams, like her character, remains a cool customer as well, her performance a marvel of masked emotions and seeping panic.
The garage owner (Will Patton) who looks over Wendy’s car seems to never really look at her, and it’s that willed blindness—or perhaps indifference—to her predicament, writ large, that is most painful to watch, especially in these hard times. The stakes are so small, in dollars and cents, but so insurmountable. A March New York Times Magazine story included Reichardt’s work in a rising school of so-called “neo-neo-realist” filmmakers, including So Yong Kim (Treeless Mountain) and Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop). The nearly perfect Wendy and Lucy makes its director valedictorian.
Leaving behind restraint, realism, compassion, and, well, humanism, there’s Martyrs, a radically different vision of a damsel in distress. As a young girl, Lucie (Jesse Pham) escapes from a mysterious imprisonment wherein she was abused and tortured. By whom? Why? No answer is forthcoming. The only thing reconnecting the traumatized child to the world is fellow ward of the state Anna (Erika Scott). Flash forward 15 years to adult Lucie (wolf-eyed Mylene Jamponai) bursting in on a seemingly random middle-class family and splattering the walls with their blood. Are they the people who tortured her? Or is she insane? Or both? Not even her BFF Anna (Morjana Alaoui) knows. And that’s where, as they say, complications ensue.
Writer/director Pascal Laugier appears in a special DVD-only introduction smirkily apologizing for what you are preparing to witness. As much as you may want to smack him even before you see a frame of his film, you have to give him credit for making such an effort seem reasonable, even necessary. Known here, if at all, for 2001’s loony period kung-fu/monster movie The Brotherhood of the Wolf, Laugier could have settled for a surely verve-y take on the sort of bloody-tanktop gorno issuing from the continent these days, but he apparently set out to outdo Takashi Miike, Chan-wook Park, and Eli Roth all in one film. And in a way his gruesome ambition pays off. Martyrs is sort of like the 2001: A Space Odyssey of contemporary horror: Just when you think you might understand what sort of movie you’re dealing with and what its ambitions are, you find yourself profoundly wrong. But Laugier lacks Miike’s artistry, Park’s humanity, and Roth’s humor, and so what’s left is the brutal, graphic, near-endless torture and debasement of women for the better part of an hour and a half.
It would be easy, and convenient, to write off this repellent film as epic misogyny in the service of nothing more than big-time icks and stoner-level mindblow. But there’s something more here, something that implicates the viewer as much as the filmmaker, and whether it’s artistic or merely pathological is probably better left to someone’s master’s thesis. You probably won’t like Martyrs, nor will you ever, ever forget it.