Revenge is a dish best served cold…
…We say this because a wanting for revenge often comes from trauma, and trauma is not a black and white issue. Trauma and the feelings we carry with us after are complicated. In my life, it’s never been my experience that any sort of hatred towards someone who has wronged me or someone I care about is “easy”. It’s not. The saying above implies that revenge is ugly, painful, and in itself, traumatic. Going in cold is what we’d probably prefer, but it’s a near impossibility, because the very idea of revenge attaches emotional devastation to the issue. Writer/directors Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer attack this concept with sharp precision in their debut feature, Violation, having played at the Sundance Film Festival this past weekend.
In Violation, Miriam (Sims-Fewer) and her husband Caleb (Obi Abili) are visiting Miriam’s sister, Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband, Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe), an old friend of Miriam’s. Miriam harbors a jealousy towards Greta, because while Greta and Dylan have a seemingly perfect relationship, she and Caleb are on the rocks. Following both a physical and emotional betrayal by those she trusts, Miriam embarks on a vengeful crusade that threatens to destroy her.
[Note: Before moving on, I want to preface this review with the knowledge that I am not a survivor of sexual abuse, and that there are elements of this film that I cannot relate to with personal experience. If anything I say in the following is deemed as ignorant of the subject, please feel free to message me and let me know, as it is not my intent to incorrectly discuss anything here. But this is why films like ‘Violation’ are so vastly important, as difficult as they are to watch, because they allow viewers to connect with others who have felt things they haven’t, with the hope that, at the very least, viewers will leave with a better understanding of what the film is portraying.]
Violation is a traumatic experience that will leave viewers stunned.
This film reflects the very real, complicated emotions that follow sexual abuse, without ever glorifying the violence. Violation is not the cathartic experience which some survivors have told me that films such as The Last House on the Left (1972) or, in my opinion a much better example, Revenge (2017) can be. Violation is a cold, dark, ugly, heartfelt, deeply upsetting descent into the heart of a survivor that forces viewers to experience every ounce of pain that comes with that violation, every betrayal, and every way in which others contribute to the abuse through a lack of understanding or even acknowledgement.
Violation opens on serendipitous shots of a calm lake, serenaded by the sounds of birds and insects chirping their sweet songs. We see inspired shot of the forest, overhead kaleidoscopic images that soar at disorienting angles, finally landing on a wolf quietly eating a rabbit. The message is clear: violence hides underneath beauty. Nature is beautiful, but at the heart of it is a natural ugliness, and in life, we are either defined as the wolves or the rabbits, whether that’s fair or not (it’s not). The stunning cinematography by Adam Crosby has a quiet beauty about it despite the violence. Close-ups of spiders and other wildlife are perhaps used a little too frequently, but it never takes away the individual power of each.
We then meet our cast, getting an early impression that all is not well with Miriam and Caleb. There is an easy chemistry existing between the entire cast, which allows for long conversations that bring a sense of legitimacy and relatability to the relationships. It also leads to the first few examples of subtle abuse being directed towards Miriam, in which she is made to feel bad about herself, bad about her relationship, and bad about her sex life. Rather than listen to her struggles with Caleb, Greta makes Miriam feel guilty, encouraging her to force herself to have sex with Caleb more often instead of listening to the real issue. That’s a conversation I’ve been the victim of, and I’m sure many of you have as well, and Sims-Fewer portrays it all with a heartbreaking, silent vulnerability that feels all too relatable.
The ease with which the cast interacts makes the eventual betrayal of Miriam so devastating. Her abusers aren’t obvious with labels on their forehead that read “rapist”. They are charming. Kind. And manipulative.
This film hurts. And it keeps on hurting. Again, and again, and again. Violation is a film that makes you feel sick, defeated, and goddamn angry, and Sims-Fewer channels all of those complicated feelings.
Sims-Fewer’s Miriam is a vessel for every survivor that has ever been gaslit, mansplained, turned away and silenced. Her performance is one that reaches out and grips your heart until you can hardly breathe. Through Miriam, the filmmakers take us through a variety of abuses at the hands of the people she trusts most, putting a spotlight on how lonely victims of sexual abuse can feel, especially when others refuse to listen, or worse, say it’s their fault. Which it never is. We see how easily abusers attempt to justify their actions, going as far as to manipulate themselves into believing their own lies.
We may not agree with Miriam’s actions, but we also can’t blame her. Her pain is suffocating. This film is suffocating.
Violation takes viewers to cruel heights of violence. But again, Miriam is not the un-killable badass Jen from Revenge, or the cold and ruthless Jennifer from I Spit on Your Grave (1978). Miriam’s quest for vengeance reflects the messy complication of trauma. Despite the premise, I’m not even sure you could call this a rape-revenge film, because to me, that simplifies the trauma and the actions of Miriam, and there is nothing simple about what Miriam suffers. That isn’t to say that the film doesn’t get bloody. Oof, does it get graphic at one point, it just doesn’t aim to make the violence satisfying.
With Violation, Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer have created one of the most honest and tragic portrayals of sexual abuse which I have seen, with a finale that left me speechless. This is not a film for anyone expecting glorified catharsis. Violation is a film that seeks understanding for the countless survivors of abuse, with the stern reminder that when someone is brave enough to speak out, you don’t ever ignore them; You listen.
I implore you to put Violation on your list and lend your ear to its vital message. And pay attention to what Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer are doing, because if this is the sort of power they can present with their first outing, then there is no limit to their potential.
Violation comes to Shudder on March 25th.
By Matt Konopka