After an already extensive career, Justine Bateman proves she’s nowhere close to done with her feature-length directorial debut, Violet, a film which is as easily an exploration of gender politics as it is of mental health. In the press notes, Bateman comments that “… Violet was designed to be a subjective experience for the viewer themselves …” and that is the best way to describe the film without providing greater context or verging on spoilers. You should go into Violet as blank as possible in order for your experience to be as pure as it can be. The blankest of slates will create the prime subjective experience that will leave you either frustrated or enthralled. In no uncertain terms, Violet left this reviewer feeling seen, as though layers of my own skin were peeled off, leaving what’s underneath horrifyingly exposed. The majority of this is due to Bateman’s writing, but so much of it still is connected to film lead Olivia Munn (HBO’s The Newsroom) offering one of the best performances of her career. The balance of writing with performance, along with some immersive editing applications, culminates in a highlight film of SXSW 2021 and one of the best of 2021 as a whole.
While the following review will avoid spoiler-related plot points and anything else that might prevent a fresh experience, I almost recommend waiting to read this until after you’ve had a chance to see the film.
Violet Morton (Olivia Munn) is a successful film executive with a reputation for finding and producing celebrated content after 12 years in the business. She’s admired for her perspective, her approach, and her ability to see the potential in the scripts that others do not. From the outside, Violet seems to have it all together. From the inside, Violet is at odds with herself thanks to The Voice (Justin Theroux) within her which prays upon each of her insecurities. She’s trusted The Voice almost her entire life to direct her on what to do and what not to do, but after a conversation with Lila (Erica Ash), a schism begins to form between the version of herself curated by The Voice and the version of herself she wants to be.
Audiences have seen a film like Violet before in terms of concept. Lead character has an epiphany, realizing that the life they are leading is rife with mistakes of their own making, but fear it’s too late to make changes. This story usually unfolds in a linear manner so that the audience can track the character at their current point to lowest point against everything and everyone around them. Side-characters are either supportive or hindrances, representing the devils or better angels that the lead character can’t seem to get a grip on. To a degree Violet follows this same path, but it’s the deviation in execution which takes it from interpersonal drama to a far superior existential crisis: the audience is in the mind of Munn’s Violet the entire time. Instead of relying on Munn’s physical performance alone to communicate discomfort, uncertainty, or full-on self-loathing, Bateman’s layers these moments with combative audio and visual elements. Not only do we see Munn as Violet physically react to a boss’s casual misogyny or an awkward encounter with an ex, The Voice articulates the frequently negative thoughts that prevent us from speaking up for ourselves or from reacting in any way that isn’t fear while text appears around Munn declaring Violet’s actual feelings in that moment. When talking to her childhood friend Red (Luke Bracey) about bumping into her ex before he leaves to meet some friends, The Voice piles on a slew of negative ideations, telling her that she’s worthless and being alone is safest while the text pleads for Red to stay. People are complicated, capable of feeling more than one thing at once, and Bateman presents the battle within Violet as an on-going war for her happiness, The Voice directing her to the “safe” path developed from years of degradation and subversion at expense of herself, while ignoring her feelings and instincts.
Not only is Violet an onslaught for Violet the character, it is one for the audience itself. Beyond The Voice, Bateman manifests the negative forces within Violet via a series of fast-edited images representative of intrusive thoughts. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, intrusive thoughts are “stuck thoughts that cause great distress.” They can be spurned by nothing or anything, can be weird or unusual, can be violent or plain, and they inflict damage on the individual via the visual representation in the individual’s mind. The opening of Violet is a series of disquieting images — crash test dummies violently heaving in a wreck, dead animals rapidly decomposing, brutal destruction of property — which are revisited throughout the film almost in concert with the appearance of The Voice. Other times, as Munn presents Violet putting up with some microaggression or growing frustrated, the screen itself becomes filled with red until that’s all the screen is. These images, this change in optics, convey the internal assailment Violet endures moment to moment, every day.
It’s the presentation of the intrusive thoughts which most struck me, as Bateman appeared to have climbed into my very own psyche to birth this concept. There’s a moment in the film wherein Violet attends a party, The Voice telling her who she should and shouldn’t be speaking with (optics are, of course, a big part of behind-the-scenes Hollywood) while also telling her that she’s a fraud and doesn’t belong. This goes beyond regular imposter syndrome, beyond normal inadequacy, and strikes hard at the idea that we can do great things, become a success in our field and be highly respected, yet, internally, see ourselves as something small and insignificant. Through a few flash backs, we discover the root of Violet’s intrusive thoughts stem from familial discord, old and distant, yet still raw as though inflicted moments before, this unhealed wound causing her to retrack and retrace every bad action she feels she’s done, creating the sense that there is no winning if she doesn’t choose what’s “safe.” Those of us who have, or continue to as adults, dealt with toxic familial elements understand the heavy burden of what you’re “supposed to do” versus what’s “right.” To this degree, Violet is as much a micro exploration of Violet as it is a macro look at what we owe each other. That “safe” and “supposed to” may get the bills paid and keep a roof over your head, but so rarely are they also healthy. My subjective experience of Violet is of seeing my own struggle, my own daily trials, presented in living color just with a higher budget, better clothes, and raised status.
Examining Violet in any sense brings to mind a conversation within the film regarding art films, an undercurrent discussion throughout as many of the players Violet engages with are aware of a pet project she has involving an adaptation of a poetic story. The artisans who know her, trust her and her alone to tell the story. The executives, more often than not, deride art films as nothing more than extravagance getting in the way of what consumers what. In this regard, movies become “product,” become consumables with little meaning beyond their box office gross. By eschewing convention to tell her story, Bateman seems firmly aware that Violet may not be for the masses, but that the connection it finds with a willing audience provide an understanding of the artistry at hand. As chaotic as Violet is at times, trying to track conversation, character reactions, The Voice, and the internal text grows more difficult throughout, that is entirely the point. Bateman puts us, the audience, right in with Violet, piling on and piling on, so that the discord is almost too much to take. My tears while watching Violet were not just for what I recognized academically but what I felt emotionally. There are moments that are downright crushing, making it hard to breathe, hard to think, hard to conceive of any other way. Then there is another moment which left me exhilarated, punching the sky (and nearly waking the baby sleeping on my chest) in solidarity.
As assured as Bateman’s narrative is, as precise as Jay Friedkin’s (Babe: Pig in the City) editing is, much of what devastates about Violet comes down to Munn and Theroux. Bracey as Red is confident, comfortable in his own skin, and in possession of enough self-awareness that the world at large doesn’t bother him. This makes him the ideal counterpoint to Munn’s Violet, a performance that’s raw and seething, like a beautiful rainbow-colored bruise. Munn has proven time and again to be a versatile actor, but this performance is leagues ahead of the rest. More than in a regular performance, Munn has to play to what’s happening to her with her fellow actors while also playing to the internal in a way that’s not usually visualized. This requires more than being present from her, it requires a deftness that reveals multitudes of her capabilities. As her primary scene partner, Theroux delivers his lines like he’s slicing with words. One can’t help but wonder at the implication of a male actor being The Voice considering the many toxic male characters with whom Violet engages — this is a whole new avenue of exploration we’re not going to get into — but Theroux’s performance delicately straddles the line of alluring and hateful. You like listening to him, but everything he says is putrid. To be honest, it took me some time to separate Theroux’s vocal performance here from his character Lord Garmadon in The LEGO Ninjago Movie (I said I have kids) who is equally funny and skeezy, but, once sucked into the film, the sound of his voice became something to fear like nothing else.
Violet is not a film you’ll put on casually for comfort. It’s a film worth revisiting, absolutely, but more likely it will be something you’ll show to a friend or loved one so as to communicate that which your words fail to do. “This is me,” you can say or “That feeling you have, that feels so unique and singular to you, is more commonplace than what The Voice tells you.” Bateman perfectly captures the violence of intrusive thoughts and the culminating destruction they can have on someone’s life, while pointing out that tenuous thing that escapes most: it doesn’t have to be like this; you don’t have to listen. Discussed within this review is only a small part of the details within the film. I’m sure a great deal could be explored just on the fact that Red and Violet are named for the two extremes on the color scale. How one is densely packed and the other more stretched. Certainly the performances from Munn and Bracey convey this. There’s even plenty of material about the specific images Bateman choose to represent the intrusive thoughts. Or how Munn’s raw performance is fierce and searing whether internally directed or outward. There is so much to unpack about Violet and I look forward to the coming discussions that result from its release.
Screening during the 2021 SXSW Film Festival beginning March 18th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Violet website.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.