TIFF: A flailing woman exacts a cruel punishment in this visually sumptuous but heavy-handed feminist thriller.
Editor’s note: The following review contains spoilers for the ending of “Violation.”
In their Master Class during 2016 Toronto International Film Festival, “Transparent” creator Joey Soloway posits that the female gaze, a term originated by film theorist Laura Mulvey, should not strive to be the direct inverse of the male gaze. While women, trans, and non-binary filmmakers are well within their rights to subvert conventional norms around nudity, sexuality, and the framing of bodies, a truly “other gaze” (Soloway’s inclusive amendment of the term) should aim to create new imagery outside of established cinematic tropes. That brings us to Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s unflinchingly grotesque “Violation,” which hammers the bluntest of female gazes into the rape-revenge thriller. Rich in sumptuous visuals that portend its nasty undercurrent, “Violation” admirably swings very big, but ultimately comes up short.
A resolutely disturbing genre thriller, it opens with the ominous image of a pitch black wolf feasting on a rabbit carcass as eerie choral music pulses hypnotically. “Violation” is sprinkled with a healthy dose of animal imagery — like the kind found in Andrea Arnold’s films — from spiders flailing under jars to the actual skinning of rabbits. Whether Miriam (Sims-Fewer) is recalling how her shifty brother-in-law Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) used to pick the wings off of flies when they were kids, or she’s draining the blood from him like the rabbits he catches in wooden traps, the symbolism isn’t hard to follow.
Impulsive and directionless, Miriam is stuck in a humdrum marriage with the emotionally distant Caleb (Obi Abili). Staying at a lakeside cabin with her sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and Dylan, she gazes at them with longing envy; they drip sexual chemistry with teenage alacrity. By the time we see Miriam string up Dylan’s naked, lifeless body, his flaccid penis flailing dejectedly, the film’s point of view is as painfully obvious as the bat she swung at his head while he was jerking off.
The landscaped vistas are far more affecting; cinematographer Adam Crosby seems to bend nature to his will, finding saturated blues and golds in the gorgeous lakes, mountains, and campfires. The co-directors nailed atmospheric tension-building: The film plumbs a beautiful eeriness from the fiery red foliage, a glassy lake mirrored over itself in disorienting double, and a gentle current sped up to an unnerving churn of ripples. It’s too bad the lush exteriors feel completely disconnected from Miriam’s internal rhythms, which remain as opaque as the serene lake.
“Violation” pulls no punches in its meatiest scene. Miriam’s seduction and ultimate murder of Dylan, following the inciting rape, is a massive undertaking, both from a filmmaking and killing standpoint. While it may not do more than flip the script on decades of female nudity, there is something satisfyingly shocking about seeing a clothed woman exact violence on a naked man. Cinema is still building the canon of full-frontal male nudity, and “Violation” certainly goes a long way towards evening the balance.
Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli display a strong penchant for horror imagery, from the provocative to the profane. A black tarp curls grotesquely as it burns, augmenting the raw flesh beneath into a mesmerizing morass of abstraction. The rape scene is sensitively done and doesn’t fetishize: It’s shot in such tight close-ups, of closed eyes and dirty fingernails, that it’s hard to even know what’s happening. There are more than a few guffaw moments, delivering the kind of shocking violence that genre lovers live for. Try not to laugh at Miriam’s incessant puking after she slits Dylan’s neck, or her dragging his body in Mom jeans and beater canvas slip-ons. By the time she crushes his bones into a white powder and serves it to his family via vanilla ice cream, the logic behind her choices has completely waned.
Caleb is vastly underwritten as a character, which stings as the film’s only Black actor (and one who portrays a sexless cuckold). There’s also no mention of his race, which feels like a huge oversight given the recent glut of socially conscious horror.
The murder takes place before the halfway point, and at 107 minutes the film drags rather than propels toward its “Titus Andronicus”-esque conclusion. Rather than a narrative with a character arc, “Violation” feels like a pastiche of provocative imagery and hyper-realistic conversational scenes. Only Miriam emerges as a character to latch onto, but she’s too emotionally elusive to moor the audience in even her basest motivations. All the pieces of a delectable genre piece are here, but nobody’s home.
“Violation” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.