By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Anna Maguire and Jesse Lavercombe
Written and directed by Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli
I’m loath to describe VIOLATION as a rape-revenge film–not because that isn’t what it’s about, but because it doesn’t aim for the emotions one usually associates with these movies. In the ’70s and ’80s, the subject was the province of exploitation, playing up the cheap thrills of the assaults as much as the subsequent rush of vengeance; in more recent years, filmmakers have used the subgenre as vehicles of empowerment and catharsis. There’s no such relief when VIOLATION ends, which is very much writer/director/producers Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s point.
Sims-Fewer also stars in VIOLATION (playing the Sundance Film Festival ahead of its Shudder premiere March 25) as Miriam, whose relationship with her husband Caleb (Obi Abili) has become strained. Hoping to fix it with the salve of family, she travels with Caleb to the lakeside home of her sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and brother-in-law Dylan (Jesse Lavercombe). Things are cordial at first, before old resentments begin bubbling up between Greta and Miriam, who instead finds more solace with Dylan. They’ve known each other since childhood, and there’s an easy give-and-take between them during a lengthy walk in the woods–even as the subjects they joke and josh about include Dylan being a stalker, and whether animals feel pain. The movie’s opening scene, in which a black wolf devours a dead rabbit, indicates that they do, and hints that predators will become a key theme.
Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli tell their story out of order, and at first, it’s hard to get a handle on the chronology and character history. They don’t spell everything out, and the occasional insertion of off-kilter images adds to the feeling of disorientation. As VIOLATION goes on, it becomes clearer that we’re watching the intertwining of two timelines–one set in summer and rife with green foliage, the other in fall with the attendant vibrant colors–perhaps through Miriam’s fractured psyche. Hints are dropped as to the source of that disturbance, before the centerpiece scene: a lengthy, extremely explicit mutual seduction that ends with a shocking, startling turn. From there, it becomes very clear what’s happening and why, and the second half of the film adds to our understanding of how things got to this point, while drawing us deeply into Miriam’s emotional state.
She’s 180 degrees removed from the ruthless avengers of everything from I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE to Coralie Fargeat’s REVENGE; while it’s abundantly clear she has meticulously planned her course of action down to the last unpleasant detail, she takes no savage joy in what she’s doing. Following the assault on herself, she can angrily get in the face of a husband she witnesses manhandling his wife, but redressing her own violation literally makes her sick. Sims-Fewer enacts a riveting portrait of a woman who has been irreparably harmed, finds no comfort, regret or understanding from anyone around her, and responds as brutally as she does simply because it seems the only way left to deal with it.
As a filmmaker, Sims-Fewer along with Mancinelli ally our sympathies with Miriam throughout, even in her most extreme actions, alternating occasional moments seen from her point of view with long, dispassionate takes as she is either gaslighted or disbelieved. The actual assault is filmed obliquely, reflecting Miriam’s dissociation as the act occurs, while her revenge is presented in exacting and sometimes excruciating detail. That script-flipping is common to modern examples of the subgenre like REVENGE et al.; what’s new here is that the de-emphasis on sexualizing the heroine is coupled with the most explicit nudity possible on the part of the male victimizer. And yet, pointedly (pardon the use of the word), he is seen at his most aroused when he is also at his most vulnerable.
The writer/directors offer a lot to unpack in VIOLATION, including animal and insect symbolism–among which is the skinning of a dead rabbit, so those with a sensitivity to such things should be warned. So should anyone expecting the buildup of tension and satisfaction of seeing justice done that one traditionally finds in revenge pictures. VIOLATION is rather a searing, compelling study of what abuse does to its victim, the film’s horrors lying in its honesty about the aftermath and what fantasies of retaliation might mean when put into practice. It’s been put together with fine performances all around and sterling craftsmanship, as cinematographer Adam Crosby and composer Andrea Boccadoro set just the right moods, and the prosthetics by Tenille Shockey and SAW franchise veteran Francois Dagenais (the latter also an executive producer) are viscerally realistic enough that they don’t stand out as shock effects. VIOLATION isn’t after traditional genre-film disturbance; its ultimate emotion is a disquieting sadness that will linger with you for a while after the movie is over.