You can tell right away from the title that Let Me Make You a Martyr is trying something, well…different. Think of the title as the movie warning you beforehand. Hey, it says, this might not be for you. It’s probably right. It’s probably not for you. It’s alternatively pretentious, awkward, and indulgent. I mean, come on, who names their movie Let Me Make You a Martyr? But I loved it.
The overall feel is first-time filmmaker attempting Malick, crossed with first-time filmmaker attempting Tarantino, crossed with film student who stumbled into a great cast, crossed with shooting in dumpy Oklahoma locations. First timers Cory Aswaf and John Swab have co-written and co-directed something paradoxically derivative and unique. You can clearly see their influences. But you can also see how they’ve subsumed them. Malick and Tarantino haven’t made any mesmerizing backwater Jacobean revenge tragedies, with regicide, incest, rape, revenge, heroin, guns, religion, and a soul music soundtrack.
Although Let Me Make You a Martyr was shot in Oklahoma, it doesn’t necessarily take place in Oklahoma. It takes place in rural strip clubs, dingy houses with the TV always on in the background, motel rooms lived in for weeks on end, the windowless office at the back of a rundown roller skating rink, and the parking space at a strip mall where the only business remaining is a Chinese restaurant. Aswaf and Swab have almost lovingly captured the look and feel of a rural community gone to seed.
“These things usually start with a woman or a ride in a car,” says the interrogating detective trying to get to the bottom of it all. They usually do. But this thing starts with the main character, Drew, descending from the sky. He’s played with a sad determination by Niko Nicotera, dressed for a production of Hamlet set in modern times and wearing the haggard weight of someone who’s only been clean for a month or two. As his Ophelia, the lovely Sam Quartin manages that rare thing in movies: a beautiful actress looking like a young heroin addict burning through her years. Nicotera and Quartin play kind people finding their way in an unkind place.
They give the movie its foundation, but the supporting cast give it its ornamentation. This is a picaresque story with a rumpled pornographer smoking a cigarette on an exercise bike, a blissed out oracle perched in front of a slot machine, and a heroin dealer ruling a tiny kingdom from inside a trailer. The perennially fascinating Mark Boone Junior plays the king, a point driven home wildly by that insane grey mane. And the suddenly fascinating Marilyn Manson — suddenly to me, since I only know him from his weird cameo in Quentin Dupieux’s Wrong Cops — plays an assassin of indeterminate lineage. It’s a riveting performance, because it’s probably not a performance. Here’s this weird force of nature played by a celebrity performer coming out from behind his makeup and looking like you’d expect someone named Brian Warner to look. That’s Marilyn Manson’s real name. Brian Warner. Here is a guy named Brian Warner wearing enormous grandma glasses and buttoning the top button of his shirt. But he’s still got the distracted air of a celebrity performer pondering what sort of Church of Satan nonsense would get people most riled up. Who on earth is this guy? What’s his deal? At one point he’s referred to as a “Nazi Windtalker”, whatever that means. Let Me Make You a Martyr can be rewarding if you listen closely. It’s written for you to listen closely.
For some people, the twist might seem predictable. But I’d argue there’s no twist to Let Me Make You a Martyr. There’s a gradual reveal that Aswaf and Swab figure you’ll see in your own time. They know that allegories have to be good stories first and foremost (hi, Darren Aronofsky!). Otherwise, they’re sermons. And whatever you make of Let Me Make You a Martyr, it’s way too weird, seedy, and unorthodox to be a sermon.
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Let Me Make You a Martyr