**Trigger Warning: Discussion of topics surrounding sexual assault**
There’s this strange sort of thought process that goes into the writing of the stereotypical rape-revenge film. Woman (always a woman, because that’s totally not something that ever happens to a man, am I right?) gets assaulted, woman is numb, woman gets angry, woman exacts revenge, woman feels vindication. Films like I Spit on Your Grave follow this formula perfectly, and have this idea that the thing that’s going to make the trauma of surviving a sexual assault all better is getting “revenge” on the perpetrator. It should go without saying almost all of these films were written by men making up the complexities of the experience of surviving sexual assault as they go. In recent years, women have finally been getting the chance to detail experiences like this through their own eyes, removing the icky exploitation elements of it all in lieu of something more personal and emotional. Films like Revenge by Coralie Fargeat, which dip heavily into the ultra-violent action thriller element of it all, don’t seek to provide any sort of resolution for the titular revenge, but rather simply survive to see the next morning. More recently, Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman has been making waves in its clever, unconventional way it goes about providing liberation and power to victims of abuse, while looking to break the cycle of systematic abuse of power that allows crimes like that to occur. It’s why the typical rape-revenge thriller has this archaic aura surrounding it, but there’s a golden opportunity to change the narrative on the sub-genre into something more conscious, while maintaining its decidedly genre roots.
Violation is a film that, like Revenge, sounds like a standard rape-revenge film, and not a particularly pleasant one (at least comparatively) at that. Miriam (Madeleine Sims-Fewer) has traveled from London with her husband, Caleb (Obi Abili), to Canada to visit her estranged sister, Greta (Anna Maguire), and brother-in-law, Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe), at their lakeside cabin. While the trip seems to go off without a hitch at first, Miriam is subject to an attack by someone very close to her, and struggles to find support in anyone surrounding her. Feeling dejected, angry, and betrayed, she finds solace in crafting a plot of revenge; a plot that she decides to put into motion as she grows increasingly isolated.
The difference in Isolation comes in a few key elements, but none more important than the depiction of sexual assault typically happening from someone that you not only know, but are close to. Random acts of sexual violence are not particularly uncommon, but many of the archetypes of films surrounding sexual assault find women at the behest of a total stranger, giving the “search and destroy” element of their revenge precedence. Violation takes the “call is coming from inside the house” approach to it, and, in it that, establishes a moral dilemma in the eyes of Miriam, but also creates a level of trauma to where it doesn’t feel like exploitation, but genuine horror, without any cheap genre tropes.
Written and directed by Sims-Fewer and filmmaking partner Dusty Mancinelli, Violation benefits greatly from Sims-Fewer also assuming the lead role in the film. It’s obvious from the jump that Sims-Fewer completely understands the shock and pain that comes from Miriam’s experiences, and channels it into a gut-wrenchingly tortured performance that, intentionally, is quite hard to watch. There’s also a wonderfully improvised feel to the entire film, and whether any of that was improvised or not, Sims-Fewer finds a volatile, erratic energy that comes from dealing with all of the conflicting emotions of an attack like that. It’s frightening in all the wrong ways, but seeks to drive the intended message into the final product.
An exploitation film this is not, but that’s not to say the film is for the faint of heart. Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli wade the touchy waters of sexual assault in an alarming, but restrained way, but it’s said restraint both in those particular scenes and Miriam’s quest for revenge as the film plays out so much more alarming. This isn’t an over-the-top, cartoonish rampage of vengeance, but a quietly constructed, thought out act of violence that makes soul-crushing (and bone-crushing) waves through the audience. Trust that while this is no Saw film, there’s a concentrated brutality in the entire air of the film that when shit finally does hit the fan, it was enough to make me feel light-headed in my seat.
Violation doesn’t play out in a linear fashion, but rather in two separate timelines cutting back and forth, revealing the details of the story as it goes along, much in the same way as the most famous modern instance of this technique, Little Women. Taking place in such a short span of time, it’s difficult to sometimes place which timeline the film is in at any given point, making the distinction of “What’s happened so far? Who knows what at this point” a bit harder to place. It’s an effective tool to keep the emotional volatility of the film in check, and it keeps Violation from following the typical timeline of a revenge film, increasing the devastating nature of the whole ordeal, but there’s certainly room for some major reworking in ironing it out a bit.
Violation is obviously not a fun film, but its efforts in rebuffing the exploitative way that sexual assault has been utilized as a plot device throughout the history of film are entirely successful. Luckily, it’s not a film that tries to trick you into thinking the film won’t be as gut-wrenching as it seems, as the production team, as well as the marketing team at Shudder have taken no opportunity to market this as anything but a film as traumatic as it sounds. Will that keep people from going out of their way to watch it? Perhaps, and maybe that’s all the better for anyone triggered by depictions of sexual assault (especially in films that simply spring it on you out of nowhere), but Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli have something to say here, and it’s something worth listening to if you have the stomach. Its structure both propels its emotional impact while it sometimes hinders its narrative cohesion, but there’s no doubt the film is stylish (in a fitting, incredibly dark way), and Sims-Fewer tops her work behind the camera off with a shattering on-camera performance at the center of the film. At this point, you probably already know if you can handle Violation or not, but if you are, it’s a film worth enduring, with crippling reverberations of long after the credits roll.
Available for streaming exclusively on Shudder March 25th, 2021.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.