Violation could be considered the even-more-vicious sister to Promising Young Woman. Both films are rape-revenge stories, and yet neither one is a pulpy, perversely satisfying celebration of female-fronted vengeance and neither one is more complicated or more cathartic than the other. Whereas Emerald Fennell’s stylishly sobering, wickedly funny feature debut grazed the horror genre, Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer’s provocative feature debut burrows right into portentous horror with overt symbolism and almost-casual extremities. Let’s call it Lars von Trier’s I Spit on Your Grave. While that will be a hard sell, especially for the faint of heart, “Violation” is more subdued but still furious as a disturbing meditation on the cause and effects of an all-consuming, life-changing trauma. It’s like a scream underwater that nevertheless causes a powerfully damaging ripple.
A wolf chewing on a dead rabbit is probably the most fitting predator-and-prey image to open the film. From there, tension is already in the air between Miriam (Sims-Fewer) and husband Caleb (Obi Abili) before they make it to their weekend getaway. There, in a cabin in the woods, they catch up with Miriam’s estranged sister, Greta (Anna Maguire), and Greta’s charming American husband, Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe). After the sisters play board games on the back patio and both couples have chicken fights in the lake, it’s time to camp out by the fire. Once Miriam and Dylan are the last ones awake, they get to talking and accidentally share a kiss, but it’s just from the booze, of course. By morning when Miriam is still unconscious, a non-consensual encounter crosses the line, and that changes everything.
Writer-directors Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer forge their own quietly potent path in telling another story about trauma. It’s through their choice to tell Miriam’s story in a non-linear manner that makes the viewer do the leg work and sort through what transpired and when. By telling the narrative this way, too, this approach helps immerse one into Miriam’s shaken-and–stirred mind before and after her retaliation. From Miriam’s violation by someone she thought she knew, to the aftermath, the film is served well by the time-jumping, coming off more dreamlike and expressionistic than senselessly jumbled. At a point, the viewer becomes as disoriented as Miriam.
Offsetting the peaceful, birds-chirping countryside of Quebec with the secret violence that ensues, the film is evocatively photographed by cinematographer Adam Crosby. The effective use of ambient sound and topsy-turvy shots of nature also keeps the viewer off-kilter when necessary. The assault itself is shot exactly for what it is: a private, intimate moment gone awry and made deeply uncomfortable from Miriam’s perspective. And yet, Crosby shoots it in an understated and suggestive way to keep such an act from becoming exploitative or titillating with the use of close-ups on fingernails, eyes, and hair. The order of the words “don’t” and “stop” also matters here, as does the amount of pause held between both words.
Besides something so horrific happening to her, Miriam is written somewhat as a cipher. This is indicative of how she and Caleb, her husband, don’t say a word on their drive. When Miriam asks him why he’s being so quiet while in the shower, Caleb replies that he’s just thinking and they will discuss it when they get home. Their issues are never addressed, but this is a setup for couple dynamics that could not be more black and white once the giddy, flirty Greta and Dylan enter the picture; these two seem to have the best sex life, while Miriam and Caleb have none. Early on, the men are both presented as male protectors; Caleb is seen setting a spider on fire, while Miriam puts a glass over one on the table, and Dylan is established as a hunter, setting traps for rabbits. There’s almost an underlying jealousy in Miriam as if she wants what Greta and Dylan have. Meanwhile, Miriam and Dylan have their own history, being friends since childhood. They tease and laugh with each other that there seems to be some untapped romantic potential there. Miriam seems to have a nice relationship with Greta when reminiscing, but it gets contentious, particularly after Miriam confronts Greta about Dylan when the sisters go for a swim. By that time, the emotional damage is already done, and Greta’s dismissive reaction just fuels Miriam to make up her mind.
Despite Andrea Boccadoro’s operatic, dread-inducing score and the severe directions the story takes, “Violation” does not celebrate any of Miriam’s fleetingly cathartic yet ultimately destructive actions. Nor does the film place heavy judgment on her since everyone has their own way of processing distress and betrayal. One might question where Miriam’s next-level skills originate without much groundwork set, but Madeleine Sims-Fewer (who bears a passing resemblance to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend star and creator Rachel Bloom here) is captivating to watch as her Miriam navigates trauma. Sure, she seems to have twisted dreams about her sister dying and her dead cats, and it’s mentioned that a young Miriam was said to have poured bleach on someone’s flower bed out of spite, but the retaliatory measures Miriam takes sure are still so extreme and almost too surgically planned. She is very methodical, and yet, how she is able to carry out her plans jarringly comes out of nowhere. It’s as if she studied a tutorial on “How to Dispose of a Body in a Pinch” off-screen, and we are supposed to just go with it. Aside from that leap, none of this is played for vicarious thrills or even gallows humor (even if Miriam’s new ingredient to their family’s homemade ice cream is sickly amusing). It’s more hopelessly tragic than anything.
Arguably an anti-revenge film, Violation is grimly visceral and uncompromising, and never gratuitous. The grander point—or question—here seems to be: is revenge ever worth it? The subtly devastating final shot leans toward “no,” as if Miriam took the “revenge is a dish best served cold” idiom all too literally and now she’s up the creek with a missing brother-in-law.
DM Films is releasing Violation (107 min.) to Shudder on March 25, 2021.