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'Violation' Depicts the Visceral, Awful Truth About Revenge

A woman stands on a deck facing the camera
Madeleine Sims-Fewer as Miriam in VIOLATION

In this age of #MeToo, the time is ripe for filmmakers wanting to explore the truth about sexual assault and its lingering trauma than ever before from a variety of lenses. Films like Emerald Fennell's Promising Young Woman, Jay Roach's Bombshell, and Kitty Green's The Assistant shift the focus off one person's story to demonstrate what social structures are in place that keep a culture of assault functioning. Promising Young Woman even goes one step further and makes a case that every party -- even the perpetrators -- suffer when such crimes are allowed to go unpunished. So it seems an odd time to release a rape-revenge film, a subgenre that had its heyday in the 1970s -- unless that film happens to be Violation, directed, written, and produced by Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli, a story that subverts the rape-revenge tropes in every way and tells a very different story than anything we've seen on screen before.

Miriam (Sims-Fewer) and her husband Caleb (Obi Abili) travel to a cozy lakeside cabin for a getaway with Miriam's sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband, Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe). Miriam hopes to connect with her sister and maybe get some much needed advice for her marriage struggles. Instead, things take a turn for the worse when Miriam is brutally betrayed and sexually assaulted. Again, Miriam tries to find allies from her loved ones, but only finds criticism, gaslighting, and victim blaming. With no safe place to land, she takes matters into her own hands in a methodical, chilling way. This nonlinear, gruesome, and visceral story unspools her carefully orchestrated revenge plot in a way that will linger long after the credits roll.

Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli have been writing stories about sexual trauma as experienced in the context of family and larger society for over five years now. They created a series of noteworthy shorts, Slap Happy, Woman in Stall, and Chubby, before tackling their first feature length production. Both of them have shared in various interviews that they have a history of trauma in their past and that Violation is very much a personal movie. They wanted to show the cost of revenge -- the cost to the body and the soul. View my interview with Sims-Fewer and Macinelli here to find out more about their vision.

A man in a car looks towards his passenger
Obi Abili as Caleb in VIOLATION

In telling the story, the movie employs a nonlinear timeline. At the center of the movie is the assault scene, and the movie also shows 48 hours before and 48 hours after. However, those scenes are chopped up and woven together out of order, which allows the viewer to experience Miriam's perspective and her trauma in a stronger, more powerful way. One moment the couples are enjoying time by the fire, and the next, Miriam and her sister are arguing about something at a new location. This disorients the viewer and increases discomfort and anxiety. Then we go back and forth in time, experiencing all the facets of Miriam's ordeal. The process feels exhausting and adds to the physical toll the movie takes on the viewer, thus creating the visceral experience Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli wanted.

Audiences should go into the viewing with as little information as possible for the best viewing experience, but be warned, as stated above, a sexual assault does happen, although the viewer does not witness an assault from an outsider view. Instead, during the scene, the camera's gaze takes on the perspective of Miriam herself, showing what she might see during. Insects crawl past the camera; skin is visible but out of focus, and the camera is so close to the skin that it's unclear what parts of the body we are seeing. With visual senses limited, interest shifts to the sounds of breathing, the assailant's whispered voice, Miriam's muffled sounds of distress, and the vocal piece used as a musical background. The more visually uncomfortable scenes happen during Miriam's revenge, which include full frontal male nudity and graphic and gruesome images of body mutilation and dismemberment. But don't go in expecting a triumphant blood bath accompanied by a barbaric YAWP.

Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli made each choice to subvert the traditional rape revenge film. In these films, a woman is brutally raped and tortured, and each moment is captured on screen, usually with the woman naked and the man fully clothed and laughing at her humiliation. The woman then crawls into a corner, licking her wounds. After a period of intense renewal, she exacts revenge, and viewers relish the tables being turned on the evil men. In Violation, the assault isn't seen, the man is the one who is naked and helpless, and there is no triumph in the act of vengeance. Miriam's journey is slow, methodical, emotionally and physically exhausting, and makes her question her humanity.

Two woman sit together on a deck, eating ice cream
[L-R] Anna Maguire as Greta and Madeleine Sims-Fewer as Miriam in VIOLATION

To be fair, Violation is not just a story about sexual assault or revenge. It's also about sisters and family. No matter how old a person ages, no one remembers your flaws like a sibling. Miriam tells herself a story about Greta, just as Greta tells herself a story about Miriam. Neither can see each other clearly, and the relationship suffers. Violation captures this dynamic perfectly, and the betrayal of Greta is, in many ways, worse than the assault.

Special credit should be given to director of photography Adam Crosby, who helped create the lush, fairy tale feel. The crew filmed only during the hours of dust and dawn, using only natural lighting. This choice sets a color palette that lasts through the film and makes for some outstanding visual composition -- much better than one would expect from a film on a shoestring budget. The storybook world is further created by the appearance of animals, caught in natural acts that often mimic or emphasize the dynamics played out by the human characters. The wolves, chewing on rabbit prey, make the biggest impression. Composer Andrea Boccadoro underscores all of the visual storytelling with his avant-garde, baroque-inspired musical score, used primarily in the transitions between scenes.

The film's plot brings to mind a list of source material, from Psycho to the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode "Lamb to the Slaughter" to I Spit on Your Grave to Gaslighting. Yet this story is completely new and stays in the female gaze. The way and manner in which it is told pushes the boundaries of cinema. For that alone, it's worth knowing about, even if it's a movie that some viewers will choose to avoid. Violation serves as a cautionary tale for those who fantasize that revenge can be sweet. Perhaps, for viewers suffering from trauma from sexual assault, watching Miriam's journey can also serve as a tool for exorcising painful feelings. While my first viewing left me breathless, I didn't understand the power of the film until the next day. Three viewings later, and the mastery of this filmmaking team becomes ever apparent. Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli are a powerhouse team to watch.

Release Info: Available to stream only on Shudder

Final Score: 4.5 out of 5

Movie poster of Violation