Sundance 2021 Review: 'Violation' has countless consequences

Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer's 'Violation' is an angle on rape-revenge that does not "glamorize" (for lack of better phrasing) the protagonist's namesake revenge.

The calm before the 'Violation.'
(Image: © Shudder)

What to Watch Verdict

'Violation' is devastating, appalling, and intentionally hard to swallow with such a striking subversion that might lose its throughline in moments, but is always making the loudest visual splash.


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    🕷️ Symbolism through cinematography.

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    🕷️ Challenges the way bodies are exposed on camera.

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    🕷️ Confident, up-front, relentless.


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    🕷️ That relentlessness never lets up.

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    🕷️ A narrative that jumbles more than it should.

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    🕷️ Provides commentary on many subplots, some of which distract from the driving message.

Violation is part of our Sundance Film Festival 2021 coverage. You can find all of our reviews here.

In Violation, Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer emphasize the latter stages of rape-revenge cinema; those dwelling spirals, the insecure sensations, and the aftermath. Typically, filmmakers fixate on the rape (read: the torment of a failed female) and culminate their immediate retribution with triumphant revenge as protagonists slay their abuser, one or multiple, after some I Spit On Your Grave justice. Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer aren’t sticking to formula templates, bringing rape-revenge entries like Felt to memory in the ways a survivor struggles to cope. Often, a broken victim's journey after harassment culminates with some action-pornographic final blow accompanied by primality—a scream, or a one-liner, or gratuitous gore before striking a superhero pose.

Violation is different. Violation is violating. Violation lingers far after other cameras would shut off, more interested in what comes next.

In Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer’s narrative, Miriam (played by Sims-Fewer) sits centrally as her world swirls in disconnect. Miriam and her husband Caleb (Obi Abili) meet Greta (Anna Maguire) and husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) for a lakeside rendezvous. Alcohol clouds judgment, wives confess marital woes, and something terrible happens around the bonfire that is not consensual. When Miriam approaches Dylan the next morning, he falls back onto using “we” rhetoric instead of taking accountability for his conscious actions. Miriam is distraught, shaken, and without answers. There will be consequences.

There’s no tiptoeing around the divisive nature of catharsis and how personal experience shapes our responses to on-screen trauma. Violation is exquisitely unflinching and unsettling given how Miriam’s vengeance culminates with roughly still a third’s worth of movie left. There’s no hero’s conquest when the big bad wolf (predator imagery to start the film) is challenged by the "prey" he assumes won’t defend herself. Miriam executes her mission but is still left to reconcile and recontextualize feelings, scars, everything that’s not erased by a sole reaction. “A single thought” is whispered as a backing track’s chorus over both fireside laughter over classmates recalling past professors, then again once the film’s nastier conclusions churn stomachs, eradicating the fantasy of simplistic cleanups to such disastrous atrocities. A single thought changes everything, and Miriam’s journey haunts us with that melody.

For a film titled Violation, Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer deliver ceremoniously in ways that do not glorify the acts committed. I’m doing my damndest to remain non-spoiler, but Miriam is not a mob mercenary who cavalierly jests around corpses. Greta monologues about how she’s discovered empowerment in learning to skin and butcher game like rabbits, which is a stark juxtaposition to Miriam’s usage of black garbage bags, igloo coolers, and hacksaws. Cinematographer Adam Crosby is astounding in his at-times kaleidoscope vision when using mirrors to distort treelines to provide multiple perspectives on a single landscape (clever), but more importantly, fixates on the revolting nature of Miriam’s reprisal. Plotted darkness is always apparent, but trigger warnings are not restricted to unwanted intercourse. Visually, “snuff” comes to mind.

Conversely, the narrative flow — or choppiness more appropriately — takes swings that unnecessarily complicate timelines. Violation not only nervily tests Miriam’s last wills but also pressures the comprehension of viewers and patience of supporting characters. Greta immediately defends her personable-gentleman husband, spouting the usual defenses of, “he’s been nothing nice to you,” but the reflexive contempt is murky. Same for Caleb’s relationship problems and how Miriam retreats. Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer stretch painstaking lengths to display flirtation between spouses who shouldn’t be sexualizing their conversations but don't grasp the sustained landing points of dialogue like, “We’re all Hitler, we’re all Christ, we just have to work on the good parts.” In the moment? It’s even-playing field banter that teases arousal between forbidden lovers. In the grand scheme? Complexities of accusations and denials start crisscrossing in ways that can be misconstrued or shade Miriam unintentionally.

I’m torn, but impressed by aspects of Violation that pierce like a spear to the heart. Miriam saves a spider but is warned by Caleb that it’ll just bite her later; insect, arachnid, and animal symbolism is familiar but appreciated. The way Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer maximize the vulnerability and weakness of their male predator by not only stripping him fully nude (Revenge) but embracing the male erection on-screen, cares not about what’s generally barred. Tethers are strong enough to convey the anguish in feral screams and inescapable toxicity that define Sims-Fewer’s excellent by all accounts performance, if not hindered by the order in which scenes occur. It’s rape-revenge that revels in unconscionable messiness, perhaps with purpose. An emotional response to a selfish act, unlikely to care about “structure” or “proper form.” As an artfully composed plea, as an antagonized outcry, as a horror story about the falsehood of moving onward, Violation furiously deconstructs the massive toll that a single thought can take on an innocent, unasking soul.

Violation will be available on Shudder March 25th, 2021. 

Matt Donato

Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.