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TIFF 2021: Violet is an on-the-nose exploration of Hollywood anxiety

Violet (TIFF)

Olivia Munn’s spirited performance elevates what otherwise feels like a moralistic, obvious self-help treatise on trauma and accountability.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.)

There has been a significant shift in filmmaking and scripting recently where buzzy ideas like ‘trauma’ and ‘accountability’ have been explored in a very lazy and uninspiring surface-level fashion. The need for movies to be some sort of active moral life lesson and perhaps worse, a form of therapy, has overtaken the artistry with which human emotions and connections can be conveyed through the moving image.

It’s a chicken/egg scenario trying to decipher whether illiteracy in art came before this hackneyed hijacking of cinema by wannabe therapists or vice versa. A movie like Violet, for all of its good intentions, fails to decipher itself beyond this medicated approach. 

Before the movie began, filmmaker Justine Bateman delivered an opening personal statement which made it evidently clear that this film is first and foremost aimed to be manual or a guide. This set off red flags right away that this movie is trying to make itself useful and thus will almost guarantee to be an insufferable bore.

Violet (TIFF)
Violet (TIFF)

Still, I was surprised that Violet actually managed to be engaging in a few aspects. First off, I’ve never seen Olivia Munn put in a genuinely good performance, so this was a first. Maybe it’s because her titular character is literally in the film industry and familiar in many ways, but nevertheless, she conveys well the varied emotion of someone feeling stuck in a job and having a sense of constant anxiety that slowly shuts her more and more inside of her own head. 

Bateman’s direction functionally works, but it’s too obvious and on-the-nose. It indiscreetly uses visual cues to signify emotion (the screen shifts colors to a deep red every time Violet feels uncomfortable or overwhelmed) and literally spells thoughts out in both writing and a voice-over (Justin Theroux) of Violet’s internal monologue – what she calls her “committee”. Flashback sequences to her childhood where her mother treated her poorly are played like power-point presentations on different walls in the city.

Essentially a movie version of a self-help book.

Some may find this type of stuff profound and important because it does a successful job in manipulating viewers’ emotions and preparing for a breakthrough catharsis at the end. But then why not just watch a motivational lecture or go actually see a therapist? 

As essentially a movie version of a self-help book, Violet erases the subtextual, emotional drive of cinema and makes it literal text in an overt way that is structurally and visually manufactured to make you feel something. Unlike a lot of the sappy TV shows of late where characters literally tell you what they’re feeling, you can consider this at least a step up — at least it utilizes something besides “story” to active its prescribed dose of therapy. Is it art though?

The movie has a subplot where Violet really believes in an artistic film that she wants to get into production but her bosses laugh it off as unprofitable. One can consider Violet to be sort of the compromise of those two positions. It creates something that is actively profitable in the film market today – entertainment as therapy – and dresses it up as an art film. It’s like when you dangle a treat to trick your dog into opening its mouth so you can slip in its medicine.

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