Sundance 2021: “Violation” is a work of shocking cinematic provocation

Sundance Violation

Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli’s rape revenge thriller tests the boundaries of narrative and sensibility to gruesome effect.

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

Take a look at the schedule of any film festival worth its salt and you will almost certainly find at least one or two slots filled works that appear to have been programmed in large part to shock and outrage viewers with their provocative storylines and/or gruesome imagery. Clearly filling that bill for this year’s Sundance is Violation, a particularly savage rape-revenge drama from the writer-director team of Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli. Here is a film that seems to have been designed to lure in viewers determined to see just how far it will go while at the same time sending others fleeing in either a huff or a hurl. (Of course, thanks to COVID, they will only be fleeing to the next room, but it is the thought that counts.)

Like so many films involving wanton brutality and cruel horrors, this one begins with a shot of a car heading towards a seemingly bucolic cabin in the woods. Inside the car are Miriam (Sims-Fewer) and her husband Caleb (Obi Abili) and already at the cabin are Miriam’s sister, Greta (Anna Maguire) and her husband, Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe). Everything seems fine at first but it doesn’t take long to pick up on tensions between Miriam and both Caleb and Greta. By comparison, she and Dylan, who have known each other since they were kids, have an easier and more natural rapport. However, that eventually gives way to something darker and when Miriam dozes off next to the bonfire where she and Dylan were chatting into the night after their spouses turned in, she wakes up to him sexually assaulting her.

It is at this point that I will beg off any further plot specifics. However, if you have seen your share of films of this type, you probably have a fairly good idea of what is coming next. If nothing else, the fact that the film is playing in one of the festival’s late-night slots and will be turning up on Shudder in March should indicate that the various issues on hand will not exactly be resolved by the characters using their words. What is different this time around is that Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli have elected to recount their story using a fractured chronology that is presumably meant to echo Miriam’s equally shattered mindset. Instead of going from point A to point B, the narrative bounces back and forth as it mixes up the buildup to the central crime, the actual event in all of its horror, and the equally ghastly aftermath as Miriam works out a plan of revenge that climaxes with a genuinely Shakespearean flourish.

What is different this time around is that Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli have elected to recount their story using a fractured chronology that is presumably meant to echo Miriam’s equally shattered mindset.

As it turns out, it is this narrative approach that ultimately proves to be at the heart of the problems with Violation. In theory, I can understand why Fewer and Mancinelli elected to go this way and there are admittedly a few points in which it pays off, most notably in the way that it first reveals details of the sexual assault through Dylan’s romanticized and self-serving version of the events and only later shows us the uglier truth of what actually occurred. Too often, though, the approach means that every time the film begins to build up a head of steam, it then curtails it by switching to a different point in time and forcing viewers to reorient themselves. This is especially a problem because a.) it gives the second half of the film a more aimless feel as it keeps going back to fill in blanks that we have already done on our own and b.) it interferes with the impact of the things that do otherwise work, such as Fewer and Mancinelli’s gift for ratcheting up the tension to an almost unbearable degree and Fewer’s fearsomely committed work as Miriam.

How does Violation compare with other recent films of its ilk? On the one hand, I vastly prefer it, flaws and all, to the shallow inanities on display in the egregiously awful Promising Young Woman (2020). On the other hand, it doesn’t quite compare to Revenge (2017), the brutally effective French film that offered an equally stylish and audacious take on similar material but which did so in a much cleaner and dramatically rewarding manner. As a film, Violation doesn’t quite work, though it certainly makes me interested in seeing what Fewer and Mancinelli do for a follow-up. As an act of cinematic provocation—albeit strictly for viewers with especially strong stomachs—it is not without interest and it will no doubt inspire long discussions amongst viewers once it has concluded. I bet, however, that during those discussions, most of the participants will forgo having anything for dessert.

Violation played in the Midnight category of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution.

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.

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