I saw Corey Asraf and John Swab’s debut film Let Me Make You a Martyr a few days ago and like a thick piece of southern-fried gristle, I’m gonna be digesting it for a while. It may take a couple more times around before I feel like I’ve fully got a grasp on its layers and subtext, but hell, who wants easy answers anyway? Certainly not the filmmakers, who have crafted a dense and sullen tale of revenge, religion, and morality seeped in the swamp. They’re interested in raising questions, not a body count, making the film a curative for the type of slick, trigger-happy crime thrillers so prevalent today.
Like the film itself, lead character Drew Glass seems to exist on another plane. Somewhere ethereal. He’s returned to his cheerless town in Oklahoma (where the film was shot on location) to wrap up some unfinished business and to come to the aid of his adopted sister, Junebug. Their adoptive father is Larry Glass, a local crime boss who runs his operation out of the back of a roller rink and has no reservations about pimping out his own family for a quick buck.
It takes a little while for the family dynamic to fully rear its ugly head – for the pieces to come together. And once they do, Let Me Make You a Martyr reaches a whole new unnerving level of distress. In the wake of so much abuse, Drew and Junebug decide to kill Larry – who’s played with authoritarian cool by Mark Boone Junior (John Carpenter’s Vampires). To find a little piece of redemption, Drew and Junebug have to navigate the Midwestern underworld and its stable of dangerous shitkickers.
For these characters and the grimy world they inhabit, there are no heroes. Any hint of romanticism contains a cold lining of death. There’s a strong undertone of religion and spirituality pervading them film, but where can there be hope in all this misery? Still, amidst the cruelty, Drew and Junebug grasp for the light. Do they find it in the end? That’s up for the audience decide.
Drew is played by Sons of Anarchy alumni Niko Nicotera. He gives a sensitive performance that without direct exposition lets the audience know that Drew wasn’t born mean. He’s kind of a conceited son of a bitch now, but it’s his dark past that shaped him into a man willing to do what is necessary for survival. Much of Drew’s past, as well as his needs and fears, are hinted at in Asraf and Swab’s dialogue, which is a rhythmic blend of regional slang and poetry that’s a blast to listen to. It added to the hyperrealism of the film and gave weight to the moral grey universe it exists in.
The character that most straddles the line between right and wrong is Pope, a menacing hit man played by Marilyn Manson. Pope’s not an easy man to find. His wooden shack can only be reached via boat. He moves through society like a ghost. You want someone in your family dead? It costs double. In some scenes he’s simply observing his prey, in others he’s trading parables with them. He doesn’t seem to find any pleasure in his work and he wishes his marks would just accept their fate already, dammit.
After his introduction in the film’s opening scene, I pretty much forgot that I was watching Manson. Well, the tattoos and throaty voice are a giveaway, but Manson really does consume the role. The cast also includes Sam Quartin (who starred in the short film that spawned this feature, Judas’ Chariot) as Junebug and rapper Slaine, who acts for the first time ever without his Boston accent. Slaine plays a drug dealer named Hondo who operates out of a trailer surrounded by loyal minions (played by a cast of local Oklahomans). Hondo and Junebug share an early scene in the trailer that’s a real goddamn powder keg.
There’s a great comedic moment with Pope at the very end of the film that comes right when a moment of relief is needed. To me, that humorous bit served as a nice reminder that as dark as the world gets, at least we can laugh about it sometimes. I had mentioned “hope” earlier and whether any can be found in such a bleak universe. If the characters in Asraf and Swab’s remarkable debut film find this hope is left up to the viewers. The curtains close in an ambiguous way that’s probably gonna piss off some, but whether you liked the film or not, it’s doubtless going to stick to your ribs for a while.
Let Me Make You a Martyr had its world premiere at the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival. Expect it to be making further waves on the festival circuit in months to come.