TIFF21 REVIEW: Violet [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 92 minutes
    Release Date: 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Relativity Media
    Director(s): Justine Bateman
    Writer(s): Justine Bateman

Don’t you feel better now?


While the first voice to tell Violet (Olivia Munn) she was worthless came from a woman (her mother), it’s unsurprising that writer/director Justine Bateman turns the one incessantly pushing her around from the inside out today a man’s (Justin Theroux). Part of it probably stems from the fact that she works in Hollywood and thus deals with men oscillating between cruelly objectifying and cruelly belittling every single day, but the biggest reason is surely because of the world in which she lives. Men “built” this country. Men “run” this country. Men “own” their wives and daughters at the stroke of a pen dictating what they can and cannot do with their bodies. Even when tiptoeing around other women, that intrinsic appearance-driven second-guessing can be attributed to systemic misogyny.

As Violet portrays, it never stops. It just increases and increases to the point where its “Committee” becomes a regular part of Violet’s existence. Should she tell off an employee shirking their responsibilities because they know she’ll let them? To be demanding is to risk being called a bitch. To be emotional is to risk being labeled weak. But the more Violet straddles these impossible lines all women face, the more she realizes she’s become a tool to wield as those she buries her head to placate see fit. It seems okay too as long as it brings success. If stripping herself of a personality to always deliver what everyone else wants allows her to have the career she’s strove to achieve, the ends suddenly justify the means.

Unfortunately, however, that mindset can’t last. The growing pit of pent-up rage born from acquiescence to the “Committee’s” voice becomes a powder keg ready to explode. And its volatility balloons at the notion that letting it will ultimately be her undoing. Because while toeing the line appears to have worked, it’s just been creating a false sense of reality in the background of her actual talent. So when her success plateaus due to her inability to shake the boat and move to the next level, she realizes that avoiding the boxes she’s been conditioned to fear created another she was too distracted to see. But rather than see change as compromise, the voice introduces it as Armageddon. The inevitable fearmongering cripples to the point of full system shutdown.

That is where Bateman begins her feature debut: with Violet standing on the edge of a cliff, uncertain of whether to jump. The voice says no. It implores her to bottle everything so as not to provoke the world from telling her what it really thinks. It tells her instead. To “protect” her. On some level she knows it’s all lies. She knows it’s fear of the worst-case scenario preventing her from ever experiencing the best-case with white, cursive text that Bateman projects onto the screen revealing as much. It’s the silent screams of a woman desperate to take the next step—to be vulnerable by cutting the safety net that has really been a prison in disguise. This is a mental health crisis given complete sensory form.

Beyond the pejorative narration (a device similar to the television show “Physical” using its lead character’s own voice to self-sabotage) and text (the superimposition is constant throughout the film’s duration) is also the creative flourish wherein Bateman runs film of Violet’s memories (Liliana Mijangos at eight-years-old) on walls in lieu of screens. We see her dressed in a cape and riding her bike without a care in the world until returning home to hear her mother’s latest beratement. They grow in frequency as Violet inches closer to her breaking point, evidence that she wasn’t always this scared. Not that escaping the echo chamber of her own psyche is something you can just switch off. What’s happening on-screen cannot ever be thought of so reductively. And Bateman thankfully doesn’t.

Not that I wasn’t worried she would. There were times during the first half that really gave me pause. The fact that the sensitive, caring voice of reason almost cutting through the internal monologue also comes from a man (Luke Bracey as Violet’s childhood friend Red) feels problematic on the surface, but judged alongside Keith Powers (a co-worker acknowledging aloud that she deserves more respect in their office than she gets) and Jim O’Heir (a Hollywood production executive who publicly highlights her value unabashedly and unprompted) gives it credence while also exposing how insidious the patriarchal nature of America is. When her best friend Lila (Erica Ash) tells her to stop, Violet snaps back. Her own inherent misogyny needs validation to come from men for it to be true.

And as the narrative progresses from its skit-like construction (Violet being placed into volatile situations that lead the “Committee” to push her into acts of cruelty herself while the screen fills in with an opaque red) to a fluid reckoning that makes her face the consequences of her callousness and realize her role in turning anxious interactions more extreme, everything smooths out whether aesthetic, performances, and subject matter. The aftermath of these outbursts ends up producing the feelings of worthlessness the voice said she was avoiding while the result of doing what her gut requests instead surprises with those best-case payoffs it said were impossible. But as anyone who has witnessed mental health crises first-hand knows, victories aren’t a cure. That voice keeps talking. And talking. And talking.

Bateman takes that into consideration both by letting the voice attempt to hip-check Violet off-course by weaponizing her happiness and by letting her actions organically unfold in ways that don’t mitigate hostile responses (before demanding an equal and appropriate reaction). After watching Dennis Boutsikaris (her boss), Todd Stashwick (her brother), and many others twist their knives in Violet’s back for no other reason than their own undiagnosed bully-complex insecurities for so long, we better get the satisfaction of turned tables before the end. And if anyone out there still had doubts about Munn’s ability to handle what a role like this entails emotionally and physically, let them go now. She digs in and leaves nothing back to reclaim the autonomy Violets everywhere have tragically been told wasn’t theirs.


photography:
courtesy of TIFF

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