Film Review: “Violation” – Rethinking Revenge

By Nicole Veneto

Violation utilizes extreme violence not to revel in a revenge fantasy but to deconstruct the genre’s militantly feminist appeal — “kill your rapist” — as a self-destructive endeavor offering no catharsis whatsoever.

Violation, now streaming on Shudder.

Madeleine Sims-Fewer in Violation. Photo: DM FILMS INC/Shudder

As I wrote in my review for Promising Young Woman, the primary appeal of the rape-revenge genre for female audiences comes from the catharsis of vengeance. Unlike the real world where sexual violence frequently goes unpunished, the rape-revenge movie sees victims reasserting their bodily agency through a violent — but karmically just — odyssey of retribution. One of the main reasons I disliked Promising Young Woman was that its bloodless approach to revenge is neither cathartic nor satisfying. Lecturing clueless men about rape culture and then getting yourself smothered to death so the police can step-in is pathetic compared to Matilda Lutz hunting her rapist around his blood-drenched mansion with a shotgun in Revenge. A crime as traumatically invasive and dehumanizing as sexual assault can only be punished through violent revenge — rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power, and for survivors, the appeal to “kill your rapist” means justice on their terms.

However, it may be time to reevaluate this assertion. Following a successful festival run, Violation, the debut feature from writer-directors Dusty Mancinelli and star Madeleine Sims-Fewer, has finally dropped on Amazon’s Shudder service. With echoes of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist and Michael Hanaeke’s ice-cold thrillers, Violation utilizes extreme violence not to revel in a revenge fantasy but to deconstruct the genre’s militantly feminist appeal — “kill your rapist” — as a self-destructive endeavor offering no catharsis whatsoever. Instead, revenge is a grueling and isolating endeavor with devastating (and disgusting) personal consequences.

Ahead of a family get-together and after years apart, Londoner Miriam (Sims-Fewer) and her husband Caleb (Obi Abili) visit her newlywed sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and brother-in-law/old-friend Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) at their lakeside cabin in woodland Quebec. While Greta and Dylan fawn over each other in newlywed bliss, Miriam’s marriage is on the outs. They haven’t been intimate in over a year, and the only way she can stomach initiating sex with Caleb is if she plies herself with alcohol. As her relationship crumbles, Miriam initially seeks emotional refuge in her younger sister, but it doesn’t take long before the old wounds that tore them apart resurface. Miriam has a history of going behind Greta’s back to take revenge on her behalf, doing things that Greta neither asked her to do nor finds considerate of her feelings. It’s obvious Miriam loves her sister, but her crusader complex has corroded the familial trust between them. And so, Miriam turns to Dylan for some camaraderie one night by a dying campfire, only to have own trust cruelly betrayed when she awakens the next morning to find him raping her. Worse still, Dylan takes the assault to be a consensual extramarital affair, outright gaslighting Miriam when she confronts him the following day. Her attempts to warn Greta about who her husband really is are subsequently dismissed as sisterly jealousy.

With nobody to turn to, Miriam takes matters into her own hands. Yet unlike the typical rape-revenge narrative, Miriam’s bloody vengeance doesn’t provide any catharsis. The graphic revenge sequence is long and drawn out to the point of profound discomfort. Things don’t go according to plan. At some point, between failing to suffocate Dylan with a plastic bag and clinically dismembering his body with a saw, Miriam becomes so disgusted by what she’s done that she vomits all over the floor. Dylan isn’t a hooded assailant hiding behind the bushes or a faceless street criminal. The horrifying reality of sexual assault is that most perpetrators are already known to the victim: they’re acquaintances, friends, or worse, family. Dylan is all three. Rape is an unforgivable betrayal of trust, but Miriam’s violent retaliation unleashes something ugly within her that will have devastating consequences to everyone around her.

Violation also marks a departure from the standard rape-revenge narrative because of its non-linear storytelling. The order of events between the arrival and the reunion party are shuffled around so that the grisly revenge precedes the rape. The effect is purposely disorienting and frames the violence Miriam exacts on Dylan as deeply disturbing instead of empowering. It’s a total upending of the rape-revenge formula that accomplishes what Best Picture contender Promising Young Woman tried and miserably failed to do. Revenge is great in theory, but in practice, it’s disgusting, debilitating, and provides little to no closure. Co-director/co-writer Madeleine Sims-Fewer brings a poignant sadness to Miriam that makes her turn towards violence feel all the more tragic. Isolated as she is, it’s only inevitable that Miriam’s pain curdles into an ugly and monstrous rage, eventually exploding into the Medusa-like howl of fury depicted in the film’s promotional poster.

How the rape scene is shot is worth mentioning. In order to null the exploitative possibilities of depicting rape on screen, directors have employed a a variety of shooting and editing strategies, such as quick cuts, strategic blocking, and filming at a distance. Violation takes the opposite approach — Miriam’s assault is shot in extreme close-up, often so close that the only thing you can make out is the dirt-smeared texture of skin against skin. Although the film deviates in its approach to vengeance, in both its setting and grisly mise-en-scene, Violation pays homage to the most infamous rape-revenge movie of them all, 1978’s I Spit on Your Grave. The morning before the assault, Miriam accompanies Dylan on a walk through the woods to set up a rabbit-trap, the trees high and imposing like rigid iron bars rising along the trail. You half expect to see Camille Keaton running naked and bloody in the background because only bad things happen to women alone in the woods. Though Miriam and Dylan’s conversation is friendly, the scenes exudes an overwhelming atmosphere of entrapment— in less than 24 hours, this man will rape her. And, before the weekend is over, Miriam will do something with his remains that is so shockingly vile it churned my stomach.

Violation isn’t a cathartic revenge fantasy. There is no pleasure or joy in hurting others, just personal abjection and an elemental selfishness that we convince ourselves is righteousness. While I personally prefer violent and cathartic spectacles of female revenge — colloquially known as “SHE DID THAT!” cinema — Violation is as beautifully twisted as it is savagely confrontational.

Nicole Veneto graduated from Brandeis University with an MA in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, concentrating on feminist media studies. Her writing has been featured in MAI Feminism & Visual Culture, Film Matters Magazine, and Boston University’s Hoochie Reader.

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