“We have to hear both sides.” When famous men are accused of sexual misconduct, this is a common refrain slung by their defenders. This line masquerades as a call for fairness. However, its sinister suggestion is that a victim cannot be trusted to gauge her own violation. This defense comes in a long line of victim-blaming that includes condemning a woman for what she wore, where she went, and why she ever dared be alone while female. In Violation, the horror comes not only from what its heroine experiences, but also from allowing the accused to share their side.
The debut feature of co-writers/co-directors Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer, Violation centers on Miriam (Sims-Fewer), a troubled woman who hopes a holiday with family will provide comfort and guidance. Riding to a remote cabin with her husband Caleb (Obi Abili), Miriam practically chokes on the tension between them. So, it stings, watching her younger sister Greta (Anna Maguire) playfully flirt and frolic with her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe). Throughout the getaway weekend, she confides in both about her marital woes, and gets very different feedback. Distraught, Mirriam drinks heavily late into the night, enjoying the warmth of company and a campfire. Then, the film smash cuts to morning, a forest landscape turned literally upside down and a score of shrieking string instruments.
From here, the story will slide back and forth between that trip and another, where the vibe is drastically different. Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer’s script doesn’t immediately reveal what went down in between, so we are left to play detective. Slowly, the details of that night will be revealed, first in a monologue then in flashbacks, one side, then the other. The filmmakers do not leave ambiguous which side they favor, nor do they make a sick spectacle of the eponymous assault. The shots of that scene are in close-up, focusing on facial expressions and hands, not tawdry peeks of skin. Overall, the filmmakers focus on the experience of being attacked, accused, and then left to deal with the aftermath all by yourself. That’s what makes Violation a bone-tingling horror-thriller. For the first act, it appears like a mumblecore drama about romantic ennui and sibling rivalry. Then, with a sharply surreal spin in style, the film becomes less about what happens and more about how it feels.
Sims-Fewer grounds Violation with a performance that is achingly raw. From her first moments onscreen, Miriam’s hunger for love is painfully apparent. As she talks to her sister, there’s an itchy reluctance, which speaks to past resentments. Miriam’s journey through hope, betrayal, rage, and revenge is exhilarating and excruciating because of Sims-Fewer’s fearless vulnerability, exposed like a raw nerve. Matching her in intensity is her ensemble. Abili bristles with the uneasy energy of obligation and vexation. Maguire first sparkles brightly so that it’s easy to imagine Greta and Miriam as girls, chattering away and frolicking on long summer days. When their bond breaks, her sharp turn to coldness is genuinely jolting and profoundly sad. As for LaVercombe, he carries a warm charm that makes it easy to see why Miriam would confide in Dylan. All together, they are a quartet playing a terribly troubling tune of tragedy.
However, what really makes Violation step up to outstanding is how Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer lean not into words, but sound. Scenes between the characters are intercut with scenes of nature, reflecting brutality in both. A wolf audibly munches on the meat of a rabbit. The skittering of bugs might spark goosebumps. The licking of campfire flames whispers a warning. Then there are sounds human and horrible. A gasp of shock. A howl of pain. The burble of blood. There will be gore. None of it plays to the torture porn pleasures of garishness. It’s too real, too disturbing to relish. A character retches in horror, and you may too. This is not a film intended to be enjoyed but endured.
This may sound like I’m daring you to watch Violation. Consider it a dare, if you need the push. For what lies within deserves to be witnessed.
Watching Violation, I was repulsed and riveted. This is not what you might expect from a midnight movie, horror flick, or revenge thriller. It’s neither goofy nor nihilistic. It does not glorify gore or titillate with violence. It does not give us a heroine whose abuses are presented as slyly sexy in the way of so many erotic-thrillers of the ’90s. Instead, it’s a sickening and deeply human exploration of the trauma of being violated. It’s a film that strips away the artifices of genre to leave us with the bones of pain and horror. It then scrapes those bones, carving out a cinematic experience that is electrifying in its agony and empathy.
Now playing on Shudder, Violation was originally reviewed out of the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival as part of its Midnight Madness slate, where it made its World Premiere. It then screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, and is currently part of SXSW Online 2021.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. Our reviewers are covering the films remotely with the use of screening links.
Header Image Source: TIFF