Rape and revenge films, by nature, offer one of the most uncomfortable and extreme subgenres of horror. They tend to follow a distinct formula that plays out in three acts; a female character is subjected to brutal degradation and sexual violence then left for dead; she survives and rehabilitates; then she exacts a harrowing vengeance with shocking ferocity. Violation tosses all the subgenre rules out the window, instead applying Lars von Trier-like auteurism and realism to the rape-revenge story, refusing to offer any tidy catharsis.
Co-Directed and written by Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer (interview), Violation stars, and centers around Sims-Fewer as Miriam. Miriam’s marriage to Caleb (Obi Abili) is on the rocks, so they embark on a weekend getaway trip to her estranged sister’s remote cottage. Instead of finding solace, though, Miriam finds herself navigating a touchy past with younger sister, Greta (Anna Maguire), and bonding with Greta’s husband, Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe). Tensions escalate, resulting in a devastating, irrevocable series of betrayals triggered by a disturbing sexual assault.
Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer, making their feature debut, eschew a linear narrative structure, building suspense through a story that jumps forward and backward in time, using subtle details- like Greta’s hair- to signify the scene’s placement in the chronology. It effectively keeps the viewer as off-balanced as Miriam, but it can also make it a little unwieldy at moments. The directors also toggle back and forth between dreamlike surrealism and stark authenticity. In the devastating inciting act, Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer rely heavily on sound to convey the profound depth of the horror. Sounds of the act itself and the ambient wilderness make an exquisitely beautiful yet disturbing way to showcase a victim’s need to check out to survive mentally
Violation gets more unflinching in the aftermath. True to the subgenre’s form, Miriam does have deserved vengeance on her mind. Unlike most of its ilk, though, this rape-revenge tale fearlessly delves into the psychological toll of it all. Revenge won’t fix what’s broken, nor do plans ever really work out how they’re envisioned. The filmmakers paint a deeply intimate portrayal of trauma. The extremity comes in the form of psychological horror over bloodshed, though there is some of that.
Because of the nonlinear narrative and the focus on the psychological, Violation’s final act is subdued. It’s not a showy finale, but it does offer potent imagery with implications that linger long after the credits. The film’s strength lies in its ability to force confrontations with its audience without shoving its messaging in your face. The filmmakers present cold, harsh truths through messy, flawed characters, yet approach it with an elegance that sets this film apart. Even when exposing the ugliest aspects of humanity.
There’s no hand-holding here. Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer have created a strange, slightly dreamlike psychodrama with spurts of grotesque violence. It’s an extreme rape-revenge film, but so far removed from the traditional that it won’t be for everyone. Then again, this subject matter rarely is. Fans of more experimental fare and controversial art-house films will find a lot to chew on here, though. Violation is one audacious debut.