Violation is a stunning debut feature that matches its its thorny discourse with impeccable technical craft.
Writer-director duo Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli have been making provocative short films together since 2017, and with Violation, they’ve finally got a feature-length runtime to expand on their thematic and formal concerns. One of the most discomfiting films of the year, Violation is in some ways a relatively straightforward rape-revenge thriller, albeit one that takes its time digging deeper into trauma and familial discord to complicate that familiarity. If that description brings to mind the dreaded “elevated horror” descriptor, the film at least gives that loaded (and vague) label a good name. Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli patiently introduce their characters and the psychological dynamics at play over the course of a long first act. Sims-Fewer herself plays Miriam, a woman traveling with her longtime partner Caleb (Obi Abili) to visit Miriam’s younger sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe). Greta and Dylan live in a large house in a secluded spot in the woods, which is slowly revealed to be a point of contention between the sisters (Greta seems to have fled from something, although we don’t know what). The group has clearly known each other for a long time, and that shared history comes through in the actors’ easy-going camaraderie between. But soon the seams start to show, and after an abrupt cut the relationship between Miriam and Greta is suddenly infused with tensions and barely concealed recriminations.
This is the first clue that Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli have jumbled up the timeline, with scenes taking place across at least two different summers and two separate visits. Far from being a simple affectation, the fractured narrative instead allows various scenarios to play out as a kind of subjective memory piece. It’s difficult to describe the rest of the film without delving into spoilers, and Violation certainly has a few shocking moments best experienced without forewarning. Suffice it to say, Miriam is raped (a heartstopping moment that manages to be queasily disturbing without being needlessly graphic) and then sets about enacting a very bloody revenge. There’s a long stretch of the film involving the highly detailed, step-by-step disposal of a corpse that made this critic’s stomach churn, even as most of the blood is kept off-screen or shot at oblique angles. But there’s also much more to the film than this: the second half of the narrative maintains the fractured timeline to investigate the assault itself, the events leading up to it, and the emotional fallout that follows. One suspects that most of the conversations around Violation will be about whether the punishment fits the crime; for their part, Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli are very willing to manipulate the viewer’s emotional reaction to each character. Each of the four principals veers from cheerful to menacing over the course of the movie, these shifts matched by the film’s visual beauty, the lush forest setting (shot on location in rural Ontario) simultaneously Edenic and foreboding. Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli employ a stark, minimalist score replete with ominous strings and atonal drones. Even before something bad happens, the mood is ominous, with extreme closeups and strange textures destabilizing the mise-en-scène. What sets Violation apart from the slow-burn, genre-adjacent pictures popularized by A24 and Neon is both its sensitivity to brutally realistic interpersonal dynamics and its willingness to go just a little further than you think it will. (Flipping the script on a typically male-dominated subgenre, the filmmakers include multiple scenes featuring an erect penis.) It’s a stunning debut film, one that pushes past any pat, easy #MeToo discourse and is instead willing to antagonize its audience.
You can view Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer’s Violation on Shudder beginning on March 25.