Violation — written, directed, and produced by ongoing collaborators Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli — is a rape-revenge thriller that’s adamant to upset the norms of the genre. Among those ostensible norms: the linear path from inciting assault to bloody revenge. It isn’t so much that the rules of rape-revenge haven’t been broken before; we’re currently in a moment for movies in which they’re being broken, troubled, and thrown back on themselves with relative frequency. What’s interesting to track are the ways that these attempts to subvert the genre — to be subversive, even — can often fall into some of the same, unsatisfying traps, or even go so far to invent new ones. Violation, an admirable movie in many ways, is one such effort. (The film is currently streaming on Shudder.)
The movie stars Sims-Fewer as Miriam, who’s taken to the hillside with her husband, Caleb (Obi Abili) to visit her sister Greta (Anna Maguire). It doesn’t take much to suss out some discomfort in Miriam’s relationships to both her husband and her sister. When the movie starts, he’s giving her the silent treatment — who knows why. Conversations with her sister, meanwhile, clarify all the bad blood beneath the veneer of happy reminiscing that we see when the two first reunite.
And then there’s the subject of Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe), Greta’s husband, who knows how to hunt (and even convinced Greta to eat meat), is full of insinuating looks, and seems to have gotten Greta out from under her sister’s thumb. That’s the subtext of so much that’s here: Miriam is thought to be a bit controlling by the other people in her life. Dylan casually calls her a ball-buster. Greta recounts a story from childhood that’s sung to the tune of You’ve never cared about my feelings; her open flirtation with Dylan is as natural as it is poised to, intentionally or not, put the comparatively sexless Miriam and Caleb in their place.
All of which makes for a simmering psychological set-up no matter what else happens. But the cat is out of the bag on this being a film about sexual assault, so there you have it: Something unthinkable happens. It’s the thing that seems to have thrown this story, which proceeds out of order, anchored in associations (some of them too obvious) and triggers which, in theory, give clarity to a sense of post-assault trauma.
But the overarching ambitions laid out by Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli, who’ve collaborated before on a handful of notable short films, unmoor the writer-directors from the heart of their subject. They saddle Miriam’s dilemma with strenuous attempts at narrative and sexual subversion that are, in the first place, not so radical as they apparently want to seem. Rather than pushing us toward the questions that you can tell the film wants to raise — about the emptiness of extraordinary violence and vengeance, among other things — they push us out of Miriam’s orbit. The “revenge” part of the film is extreme, farfetched, on purpose: It’s a grand, signifying way of getting to the core of whether vengeance is worthy of even being the compulsive fantasy.
But this, as it’s accomplished in Violation, is so much less interesting than the small stuff, the minor confusions, that it pushes the movie in awkward directions. More urgently, it undermines the minutiae of the interactions between the characters, the winding, rambling chemistry, the nearly microscopic tensions that necessarily arise when a scene featuring two people with a past draws out for as long as it takes to those tensions to rise to the surface — you know, the good stuff.
Violation’s points about violence, assault, and the disorientation of assault are all well-taken. But the strategies undertaken here feel like a lot of fuss distracting from a sincerely compelling core — and the aesthetic choices, the color-grading that announces “when” we are in the straightforward narrative, the overly-styled shots of nature, it’s all very loud, very sincere, but detrimental to the movie’s own sense of sincerity. Nothing of potential interest — not the full-frontal male nudity, nor the limb-severing violence, nor the disclosures of rape fantasies and what they explain about the two sides of the film’s central traumatic incident — none of it is quite served by the film’s Nolanesque, out-of-whack (but really highly ordered) approach to its story.
And the characters are served least of all. It feels unfair to say that Miriam doesn’t quite make sense. But the movie, dutiful and overbearing in its sense of fabrication, is trying so hard to make that point — that assault fractures a victim’s world — that it risks reducing the survivor at its center into a collision of at-odds qualities, distracting from her to make claims about and poke holes in the presumptions of the genre. Those latter aims are urgent, and sometimes invigorating. But where the real urgency comes through is often in the film’s simplest methods, its drawn-out dialogue scenes, which the filmmakers are wise enough, and crafty enough, to allow to play out with a loose, shambling sense of a reality, but for a few moments. Most exciting is the film’s conclusory and in many ways most compelling scene: a bit of bickering, layered with interpersonal betrayal and outright nastiness, that manages to summarize and clarify the effects of not only Miriam’s assault, but also the effects of her disclosure — the prickly ways in which victims’ emotional responses to assault are unpredictable, as well as the ways in which loved ones, not knowing how to handle these disclosures, may utterly fail them. This is where the emotionally loaded backstories come to the forefront in the most damaging, urgent ways, without having to even be made explicit. It’s where everything that’s of interest about these people feels dire in implication.
Which is what makes it such a strong scene. It’s a scene that seems to pull off much of what Violation otherwise has to rely on big, time-shuffling, double-underlined gestures to pull off only half as well, collapsing the past (the longer contexts of these relationships) into the present (the immediate aftermath of assault) in conceits as simple as well-timed exchanges of looks and sudden bouts of fury. For all that Violation tries to engineer through ingenuity, for all the spooky portent it tries to dredge up — having its cake and eating it, too — little of it is as disconcerting and revealing as what the film achieves at its simplest and, importantly, most original. The film falls prey to its own smoke and mirrors. It is less subversive than it aspires to be, and more emotionally real than than the filmmakers seem to realize.