'Violation' Review: An Unflinchingly Brutal, Needlessly Muddled Story Of Trauma And Revenge [TIFF 2020]

Rage, betrayal, confusion, and bloodshed are the driving factors of Violation, an unflinchingly brutal, often quite gruesome story of a woman who goes to extreme lengths following a terrible incident. Writer-directors Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli do not shy away from the violence, employing meticulously crafted practical effects to portray a jaw-dropping series of events. But while there's genuine dreamy-nightmarish artistry on display here, there's also a scattershot approach that, while intentional, does more harm than good.

Co-director Sims-Fewer stars as Miriam, whose relationship to Caleb (Obi Abili) seems to be at a dead end. The couple head to a lakeside cabin owned by Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) and his wife Greta (Anna Maguire), who is also Miriam's sister. The sisters seem loving and caring at first, but there's something lurking beneath the surface, and things are only further complicated by how well Miriam and Dylan seem to get along. They spend multiple moments together, just the two of them, while their spouses are elsewhere.

But the ominous atmosphere – lots of shots of cold, empty landscapes; ashes swirling in water; a wolf chowing down on a rabbit in slow motion; insects perched on dry fingers; mirror reflections that make it look as if there's an identical world hanging upside down above our heads – indicates something very, very bad is going to happen. And it does. Several very bad things, in fact. Before Violation ends we'll have witnessed sexual assault, savage violence, bloodletting, and a dismemberment sequence that never, ever cuts away, even as limbs are severed and the bone underneath is exposed.

The pervasive feeling of dread and horror is pitch-perfect, and Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli are quite skilled at getting under your skin. Discomfort prevails in nearly every frame – even scenes where nothing outwardly disturbing is happening have the power to give the viewer the chills. All of this works, and works exceedingly well. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the storytelling approach.

To mimic Miriam's fractured mind, Violation is presented out-of-sequence, nonlinear, with the scenes jumping back and forth in time without warning. The viewer has to do some work here and try to figure out just when some things are supposed to be happening, and while I have no complaints about this approach in theory, it doesn't do Violation any favors. Instead, it creates an overwhelmingly confusing atmosphere that saps the story being told here of much of its energy.

What a damn shame that is, because there's much here worth fixating on. Alfred Hitchcock once said, "In films, murders are always very clean. I show how difficult it is and what a messy thing it is to kill a man," and Violation is following that same concept as it depicts the strain of homicide. The murder that takes place here (I'm trying to be as vague as possible to avoid spoilers) is not done in a cold-blooded, thoughtless manner. It's full of rage and confusion, and it only gets worse from there. As Violation is entirely from Miriam's point-of-view, we're experiencing the stress she undergoes as she both commits the act and then has to deal with what comes after. We can feel the physical, emotional, and mental strain preying on her as she goes about her grim work. We can sense her psychological deterioration.

Sims-Fewer is excellent in these scenes – we can feel the anxiety, the rage, the confusion, the horror all burning through her. When she pauses in the midst of a particularly nasty task in order to vomit, it feels real – as if the actor was really halting to puke from all the stress and blood. But again and again, all of these cinematic accomplishments are derailed by the movie's insistence to jump around in time. To make matters worse, whenever Violation stops its time-warping in order to just remain on one fixed path, you sense the stronger, more remarkable film it could have been. It's right there, screaming at us, showing us what could've been had the filmmakers simply dispersed with their scattered storytelling concept.

/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10