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The revenge thriller is seeing a kind of new heyday in recent years, especially as more female-led films are made and the genre begins dealing with feminist ideas. Previously the genre was almost universally about men exacting brutal revenge on the terrible people who have wronged them but a slew of revenge thrillers are landing now that deal with women taking revenge for either societal wrongs, rape, or the loss of their family. Violation is one of the new wave of revenge thriller films.
However, it is also a bit of a deconstruction of the genre too, in that it posits the question: what if a normal person, not some gungho badass, looked to exact a horrible revenge? In that way, it actually has surprising similarities to another SXSW film I reviewed, Paul Dood’s Deadly Lunch Break. However, the similarities stop there. The latter plays its premise for fun while Violation takes itself deadly seriously and layers the revenge with grief and nuance. It’s also kind of ham-fisted at doing it.
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Directors: Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli
Release Date: March 25, 2021 (Shudder)
Violation is a film about just that. While the main centerpiece of the movie is the gruesome revenge a woman enacts on her rapist, the layers of violation go far beyond that as the movie unpacks in exaggerated ways the many types of violation that follow a rape. Miriam (Madeleine Sims-Fewer) and her boyfriend, Caleb (Obi Abili) are visiting her sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at the rural lakehouse they live at. Miriam and Greta have a strained relationship after Miriam moved back to London and Greta stayed in the U.S. and married Dylan, who the pair grew up with. However, after a drunken night at the fire Miriam and Dylan kiss, which is then followed by Dylan raping Miriam the next morning.
The film doesn’t dive right into this, however, as the movie is structured out of order, allowing for directors Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli to dig into the trauma from multiple angles and unveil details in an interesting way. We see the revenge enacted, in utterly gruesome and no-holds-barred ways, before we even see the rape. This also allows the film to hammer home the other forms of violation perpetrated against Miriam (and one she perpetrates herself), especially her sister not believing her account of what happened.
The film is visually sumptuous to view as well, often shot like the current wave of indie horror films, despite there being no traditional evil spirit or bad guy. The movie cuts away to panoramic shots of wooded hills or close-ups of insects and animals often. There’s an attempt to connect violence and sex with nature itself. It plays with the revenge thriller genre, connecting it to the horror genre by treating the rape as the evil chasing after Miriam. It definitely makes for something that is visually stunning to watch and the juxtaposition between the plethora of natural beauty shots and the gory taking of revenge adds an extra layer of dread.
Yet, at the same time, the film feels a bit overbearing in its themes, often playing itself too obviously. At one point Miriam runs into a wolf eating a rabbit in the woods, an obvious metaphor, but one that feels obvious, not interesting. The film also can’t handle its complex narrative structure as well as it needs to. While many times the jumping in time aids the structure of the film, like a single giant montage, at others it’s simply confusing. It’s a fantastic idea not quite pulled off as well as it needs to be.
Madeleine Sims-Fewer is fantastic in the lead role and her and Dustin’s direction can be immensely powerful when they aren’t trying so damn hard. When they do “try damn hard” it makes everything feel almost cliche, like they don’t think the audience will get the message without them hammering it home. This turns Miriam into a caricature more than a character and the impact of the film is muffled.
Of course, nothing is going to muffle the revenge scene, which plays out in gory detail with full-frontal male nudity. Miriam clearly doesn’t know what she’s doing and her emotional breakdown as she murders Dylan is fantastic. If they nail nothing else, the revenge sequence is fantastic. Interspersing it with how the rape occurred makes it work even better and prolongs that cathartic feeling revenge thrillers deliver.
Then again, there’s nothing that cathartic about Violation‘s revenge. No one seems to win at the end, not even the audience.