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Violation [Video Review]

Crime & Punishment: Sims-Fewer & Mancinelli Serve a Cold Dish

Dusty Mancinelli Madeleine Sims Fewer Violation ReviewNeither redemption nor revenge are at the complete behest of the individual, at least not in Violation, the rousing debut from Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli. Skewering a horde of exploitation tropes in our cultural constellation of sexual assault cinema, it’s a dish served bold, and calibrated effectively in its ability to leave its audience in doubt about sympathies and alliances.

Beautifully shot in its menacing juxtaposition of nature’s predatory hierarchy and the perverted complications of human interactions, the scenario, and its troubled heroine (played with chilly gusto by Sims-Fewer) will remain lodged uncomfortably in your throat as it dares to transgress the boundaries of victim and victimizer, predator and prey.

Miriam (Sims-Fewer) and her husband Caleb (Obi Abili) are on their way meet her younger sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and her fiancé Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe) for a remote weekend getaway at a secluded Canadian cabin. While Miriam and Caleb’s relationship seems tenuous, their tension is further aggravated by Miriam’s relationship with Greta. Once at the cabin, fond memories also bring up bittersweet aftertastes, and Miriam’s familiarity with Dylan, who she knew in high school, suggests residual desires never engaged upon. Thanks to her own crumbling relationship and her insistence on acting as her sister’s savior, despite the younger sibling’s resentment, Miriam crosses a boundary with Dylan one night while hunting rabbits. By the embers of their morning fire, they have sex, but Miriam claims this was not consensual while Dylan dismisses her feelings this for his own convenience. When Greta is confronted with this news, she interprets the act as her sister playing games. Time passes, Miriam returns for an invite to Greta and Dylan’s home, but she seems to have something disastrous planned when she orchestrates a private meeting with Dylan at the cabin where the four of them had last anguished.

Miriam is reminiscent of Kipling’s poem “The Female of the Species,” for she is, eventually, revealed as somewhat deadlier than the male (to put it lightly). Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli take pains in constantly conveying ambiguity as to what transpires, but never sacrificing a dreadful but sincere empathy for Miriam, who just cannot seem to help herself when it comes to doing or saying the wrong thing in any remotely intimate scenario. She’s painted as a woman who has quelled those base tendencies, wanting to credit for the good intentions meant by her sometimes insincere, even manipulative actions. Never rewarded for them, she resorts to circuitous, and eventually insidious ways to prove her point, and eventually loses herself in the opposite direction. Miriam is a woman of extremes and an assault compounded by a severe lack of empathy by those closest to her creates a perfect storm.

Unfortunately, acting out one’s dark, violent fantasies rarely satisfies. We’re often left experiencing our own sort of in loco parentis syndrome for victims we empathize with, which is what generates the troubling sensation of catharsis when they’re brutally avenged (another recent film, Test Pattern, for instance, evokes the rage against a culture disinterested in correctly addressing the hierarchies which enable perpetrators and silences their victims, suggesting no possible resolution).

Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli create something intimately disturbing along the lines of Haneke’s Funny Games (1997 & 2007)—we are forced to examine the situation for what it truly is, the murder of another human being in response to a sexual assault (further complicated by the familial situation of the narrative and behavioral issues). And, while it may be unsatisfying, we’re strangely left with a return to the brutality of nature, where finalities disperse into one part of a continual cycle of survival.

Shot by Adam Crosby, the quartet of actors are surrounded by a sense of menace, predators referenced continually in the frame, or insects destined for metamorphosis. The tables are turned quite intriguingly on male vulnerability in the intimate exchange between Dylan and Miriam, with Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli transgressing the timeless visual taboo of male nudity in non-pornographic narratives.

Ostensibly, Violation is a tale of two sisters which morphs into a terrifying rehash of I Spit on Your Grave—terrifying because the narrative allows sympathy for all four of them while simultaneously demanding our judgment of their faults, and the eventual actions which force us to question our own thought processes. The conversation between Dylan and Miriam prior to the first transgression suggests the template of the base realm, “Nobody’s simple,” Dylan acknowledges. But at the same time, as Miriam remarks “Everybody’s shit.” The dangerousness of holding fast to our own personal realities and residing safely within our bubbles becomes Miriam’s downfall. “Let’s start over,” she begs on more than one occasion, while never allowing others the same privilege.

And as everyone in Violation is eventually irreparably damaged, perhaps the Violation also applies to the audience, who are forced to ponder the dismal reality of sexual assault, murder, and how authentic communication saves a lot of stress and strife.

★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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