Few films are as raw and uncompromising as Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s debut feature, Violation. Tackling the topical subject of sexual violence, abuse, and trauma, their film lays its main character emotionally bare and then plays with the formula of the rape revenge-thriller in interesting ways. Not afraid to just dwell in the moment, Violation is a nuanced and deeply unsettling look at the ways in which trauma festers and the difficult, if possible, path to catharsis.
Starring Sims-Fewer in the lead role as Miriam, her and her husband, Caleb (Obi Abili), are on their way to a cottage getaway to spend time with Miriam’s sister, Greta (Anna Maguire), and her significant other, Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe). As Miriam and Caleb try to navigate their own hardships, a single, harrowing event occurs at the cottage that leaves the relationships between the four forever strained. What begins to feel like a trip where feelings will be explored, becomes a source of trauma for Miriam that may never subside.
Set in the middle of the woods, near a lush lake, Violation is the type of film that knows the importance of setting to its themes. There’s a feeling of isolation and separation from the material world that seeps into the tone of the film. As Miriam clashes with everyone around her, she finds moments where she can feel comfortable asking questions and being herself. Conversations, whether argumentative in nature or sentimental, play out for an extended period of time. If it’s two characters walking in the woods, they’re going to talk for a while. It’s not necessarily related to the plot but provides a deeper understanding of their relationships in the ramp-up to a moment of absolute betrayal.
Not much can be said without necessarily spoiling the events of the film, but needless to say, there is an inciting act of sexual violence that is not easy to watch but is also not necessarily graphic. The scene goes on for a while, but Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli capture it with a blend of graceful unpleasantness. Characters voices are muffled under the sound of the woods, and the camera often moves between looking elsewhere and zooming in so much to those involved that it’s disorienting. Easily one of the better, more tasteful depictions of something so horrendous.
It also wastes little time getting to the act but also wastes less time warning you that it’s coming. Violation is fascinating from a structural point-of-view. It plays with the timeline of events so that once you realize the chronology it makes complete sense why it’s structured the way it is. The editing from Gabriella Wallace goes a long way to giving Violation its own identity and setting itself apart from the standard rape-revenge thriller arc.
This genre in particular is always a tricky one and honestly, usually uncomfortable to sit through, even with revenge being promised. The breath of fresh air that Violation delivers is that each of the four characters in the film are explored in meaningful, interesting ways. When relationships are either broken or tested, it isn’t a yes-or-no outcome. Concepts like victim-blaming exemplify how thoroughly examined sexual violence is in the film. That doesn’t mean that there is no right-or-wrong in the situation, but that the film doesn’t want to just tell you that a character is bad – they want you to know what makes a bad character do bad things, and how that decision can impact those around them in different ways.
Violation has a hefty weight on its shoulders, but it carries it with an unmistakable confidence. Aided by Sims-Fewer’s fearless performance and a unique structure that makes things more uncomfortable than vile, there will be many people that find the realism here hard to stomach. What makes it palatable for me is that it is saying so much more than this genre normally does, with maybe the last great addition being Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge. It goes to show that when a subject matter like this is treated with much more sensitivity and doesn’t feel like it’s being exploitative for the sake of it, it can really go a long way.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 23, 2020, as part of our coverage of the 45th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival.