Some of the best films about revenge are also about its ultimate futility. Look at the end of Lady Snowblood, when the titular assassin lies bleeding in the snow, terrified of life without the single-minded fixation that has driven her for so long. Or the protagonists of Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy, who get back at those who have wronged them but lose their humanity along the way. Violation, a new take on the rape-revenge genre from directing team Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer, is similarly troubled, raising discomfiting philosophical questions while making viewers squirm at the matter-of-fact brutality of what’s unfolding on screen. The film resists catharsis and pat morality, instead sinking into the sobering realization that righteous motivations can lead to unforgivable actions. Were Violation the last movie of its type ever to be produced, it would serve as an appropriate coda for this misunderstood subgenre.
Shot in a remote lakeside cabin using only natural light, the film has the foreboding, operatic look of a Lars von Trier movie, the camera turning in disconcerting circles as it glides over vast stretches of primordial woodlands. The misanthropy is there, too, as a weekend in the country reconnecting with family and friends curdles into the most twisted group dynamic this side of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. Sims-Fewer stars as Miriam, whose marriage to Caleb (Obi Abili) is already falling apart when the couple arrives for a visit with Miriam’s sister, Greta (Anna Maguire), and Greta’s husband, Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe), an old school friend Miriam has known for most of her life. One night, Dylan takes Miriam’s flirty banter around the campfire as an invitation to sexual assault, setting in motion a chain of events that will transform Miriam into a predator not unlike the fearsome wolf that reappears throughout the film.
To that end, Violation does provide some dark satisfaction. Survivors are often encouraged to rise above their trauma, but refusing to acknowledge the hatred a victim may feel for their attacker is no healthier than allowing it to poison one’s psyche. And Violation exorcises the most violent thoughts that might flit across a survivor’s mind, passively observing Miriam as she methodically executes a detailed, meticulously thought-out plan to kill Dylan and then wipe away all traces of his physical existence. (A cooler, a soup pot, and empty bottles of laundry detergent come into play.) The film’s unblinking wide shots of postmortem dismemberment are nauseating, not only because of the makeup effects and sound design but also because of the visceral feeling that we’re watching primal taboos being violated. It’s unthinkable that someone could do all of these things to another human being, but it does happen.
Far more common are assaults like the one Miriam experiences. It’s depicted from her perspective and skirts around graphic sexual violence with extreme close-ups on eyes and hands. This is the logical endpoint of a movement to reverse the dynamics of rape-revenge stories, swinging the pendulum away from titillating sexuality and toward cleansing fury. But unlike, say, Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, Violation offers nothing satisfying for the audience to hold onto. Miriam’s actions are fueled by a blinding rage that may or may not be warranted, depending on how you lift the veils of ambiguity Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli drape onto Dylan’s betrayal of Miriam’s trust. Most sexual assaults are not committed by random strangers in alleyways but by someone the victim already knows, and trauma responses vary from person to person. Greta initially doesn’t believe her sister’s story, further complicating an already fraught sibling relationship. Although it’s easy to conclude that Miriam’s Shakespearean master plan is—to understate the matter in the extreme—a bit much, the nuances of the assault itself raise difficult questions about consent, justice, and whether some things are too horrible to even fantasize about.
Dreams come up multiple times in the dialogue of this film, and indeed the tone of Violation suggests waking up from a nightmare, panic overtaking your mind as you begin to understand that the blood on your hands is real. Sims-Fewer casting herself in the lead role adds another layer of intimacy and intensity to the film; watching her recede into the most animalistic version of herself, you get the feeling that the filmmaker is simultaneously confessing her darkest secrets and condemning you for listening to them. Her performance is as invested in pushing boundaries as the film’s script, and the nonlinear meshing of past and present makes trauma her ever-present companion.
As Miriam’s story unfolds, the distinctions between appropriate and inappropriate, waking and dreaming, justice and overkill, all blur together in a howl of psychic pain. Violation is not a movie one can casually recommend, and even aficionados of the horror genre may find it off-putting in its extreme violence or its grandiose self-seriousness. Perhaps the best way to think of this film is as a ritual, a transgressive act of dark magic that manifests all the slimy, sinister creatures crawling along the underside of more straightforward revenge narratives. You can’t banish a demon without conjuring it first.
Note: This is an expanded version of the review The A.V. Club ran from the Toronto International Film Festival.