After a young woman in a vulnerable state is betrayed and raped by a trusted friend, her struggles to deal with the resulting trauma result in a violent and bloody course of action that may have some audiences cheering while also squirming. That’s a premise that’s not too far off from a lot of revenge films, but where Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s Violation differs from many of these is in its attempts to depict the human complexities that both produce and are born out of scarring incidents. Unfortunately, a very loose screenplay that has trouble nailing down its characters, along with a confusing editing style that disorients but never proves revelatory, undermines an otherwise interesting attempt at a different take on the subgenre.
Things start out on a foreboding note, with unflinching shots of a wolf devouring a glassy-eyed rabbit. The metaphor is an obvious one, but sets up an atmosphere of dread that is complemented nicely by a dense, misty forest setting where Miriam (Sims-Fewer) and her husband, Caleb (who may as well be nameless for all his character matters), are visiting her sister, Greta, and brother-in-law, Dylan at their secluded home in the woods. Rambling dialogue and that aforementioned editing style jumping around the timeline of events make the simple setup of relationships a little harder to suss out than it needed to be, but the gist is that Miriam and Dylan were apparently close friends in college, and are reconnecting. It’s suggested that a campfire confession of her own marital difficulties, along with an intoxication-related, ill-advised kiss, leads Dylan to take advantage of Miriam in an uncomfortable, but well-shot scene that conveys the horror without exploiting it. Instead, Violation saves its grisly imagery for its payback.
The film’s centerpiece revolves around a cold-blooded killing that pulls no punches, but Violation isn’t about straightforward cause and effect, about achieving some sort of easy catharsis. Events aren’t shown in a linear fashion; instead, audiences will likely be piecing together the plot, witnesses to the revenge before they understand what motivates it. This creates a disorienting feeling that perhaps is meant to mirror Miriam’s own confusion, but a side effect is that it also lessens the impact of key events; characters’ mortal struggles — both emotional and physical — are rendered impotent by the structural obfuscation. Waiting to reveal an unsurprising attack doesn’t increase its power when the retribution has already come and gone. It’s possible that Violation is meant to be considered multiple times, but this approach doesn’t make for the best first impression.
The screenplay further hinders connection with long, strolling conversations that attempt to establish personalities but consistently contain little content; rarely do these meanderings drive anything forward, and that’s too bad, as Violation seems to have ideas that would have been interesting to see fleshed out in place of prattle. On top of that, many exchanges also come off as forced, like improvisations from actors who aren’t quite sure what their character’s foundations are. The relationship between Miriam and her sister is the biggest casualty here. What may have felt like an intriguing backstory with facets that make for a unique sibling bond/rivalry, instead stays slippery, never quite able to be grasped. Whether playful banter or emotionally-charged standoffs, the performers seem to be trying their best to find a natural rhythm, but can’t quite overcome aimless lines and a roller coaster of tonal shifts that might see them laughing hysterically in one scene, and holding a deep-seated grudge in the next.
Nevertheless, carefully composed imagery that layers on a thick atmosphere does provide a pulse to Violation, even when its dialogue or violence cannot. From tense prisons of tree trunks to creeping spiders on the lookout for their next fly, the filmmakers use the wilderness environment to the story’s benefit, letting richly ominous images establish the tone, and visual metaphor to come to the aid of the script. It may not be enough for those who like their stories to be more approachable, but fans of the genre will certainly appreciate it.
That’s the audience Violation will most likely appeal to, though they should be warned that the film doesn’t treat its subject as a joyride of retribution. This is a more contemplative approach, asking not just how violence affects a victim, but how vengeance does as well. It’s unfortunate that style and script seem to have gotten in the way, making a messy situation even messier.
‘Violation’ is distributed in Canada through TIFF digital by Pacific Northwest Pictures. The film will be available for streaming in the US on Shudder starting 3/25/21.