Violation is a visually sumptuous rape-revenge story that delves into complicated sexual and gender issues to subvert many of the tropes of the sub-genre.
Violation is a story of a rape and revenge told in a Nolan-esque memory storm sort of fashion. Scenes flow logically from point to point but flashing back and forth between a few central events. And, while Violation brings the visceral and gore one might expect from a midnighter, it appears far more interested in delving into complicated gender politics than the genre usually approaches. I should note, at the outset, that the film’s time fractured narrative means there will be what may constitute “spoilers” below.
Put simply, and chronologically, Violation is the story of a married woman who finds herself taken advantage of by her sister’s husband, a longtime friend, after a night of heavy drinking. The woman, Miriam (Madeline Sims-Fewer), turns her focus towards vengeance. In many ways, the film appears to take a heavy influence from American mumblecore. In what is essentially a chamber piece – two couples in a cabin for a weekend makes up the bulk of the film’s setting – much screen time, often in long unbroken takes, is dedicated to simple banter between the characters. The actors have tremendous chemistry as a group, which gives their banter a lived-in and naturalistic edge.
Much of the dialogue is quite funny, or at least charming. When the two sisters reminisce about the “flopsy” way their dad would chop wood, I couldn’t help but smile. When Miriam and her brother-in-law reminisce over high school teachers it has the feel of old friends catching up. They settled into the easy flirtation of will they/won’t they friends in a way that feels extremely credible.
Much of the film’s naturalism, and wit, is a credit to Madeleine Sims-Fewer. Sims-Fewer plays lead Miriam and is also the film’s writer and director, alongside Dusty Mancinelli. She’s a savvy performer who effectively conveys a lot of emotion and conflict with subtle inflections in her tone and demeanor.
One of my struggles, and fascinations, in considering Violation, is the way it plays with perspective on the rape that serves as the hinge of the film. I think it’s important that I note, here, that it is easy for me as a straight white man to cast judgment on, or perhaps misinterpret, the nuances of a rape depiction told from a female character’s perspective. It’s not my lens, only one I can hope to learn from. Yet, one of the things I found most complicated about the central assault is that the perpetrator clearly believes his version of the events to be somewhat true. For example, he later relays that Miriam said “don’t stop” as he began the sexual act when in reality, at least from the perspective we see, it’s quite clearly “Don’t. Stop.”
Other elements of his version of the night at least superficially check out. I don’t mean to absolve his actions in any way, nor do I think absolution is the film’s intent. However, I think part of Violation’s complexity – and success – is a willingness to engage on issues of consent in a way that injects some levels of gray into the mix. The film does not appear in any way to be saying the man is in the right, but he is not depicted as a typical horror movie perpetrator and there remains at least a hint of truth in his own rationalization of his actions. It makes the question of if Violation’s brutal outcome is one the perpetrator deserves. In a way, it echoes a lot of the intense conversations that Promising Young Woman has amplified especially in terms of the discussion of retributive vs restorative justice, and to what extent physical vengeance is a just response to a sexual assault. It is to Violation’s credit that it leaves the viewer without easy answers.
The film is also interesting in how it subverts and undercuts genre norms on nudity and sexual power. There is not a single moment about the rape played for lurid thrills – it is all extreme close-ups of eyes and fingernails and sounds. However, the turnabout murder sees a fully clothed woman murder a naked, aroused man. The filmmakers do not shy away from male nudity, and it serves as an interesting twist on genre norms.
When the gore hits, here – and it takes a while to get there – it is extreme. From a brutal and uncomfortably long murder through the unbelievably exacting process that Miriam undertakes to dispose of a body – I’m truly terrified of Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli’s Google search history in writing this film – there is some of the roughest genre stuff in recent memory. The craft here is immaculate as well.
Where the film is less successful is in how it balances the essentially titillative “revenge porn” of the genre it embraces. There are beats here that must aim for humor, for example an extended riff of Miriam vomiting as she begins the process of deconstructing her assaulter’s body first through exsanguination. It’s a moment of extreme violence played with beats held so long that they necessarily bleed into the realm of comedy. The film’s icy serious tone is undercut by an ending that feels of farce. Tone is difficult and, with first time feature film directors, it’s not surprising that it never quite feels to hit a consistent note. Still, there’s ample visual wit and storytelling prowess on display from the filmmakers here.