“We’re complicated people. Nobody’s simple.”
Violation is definitely not the first film to examine the toll revenge takes on the one who is seeking it – Memento, Blue Ruin and the aptly titled Dig Two Graves have all recently been successful at just such an endeavor – but there’s something especially intimate and harrowing about the idea here, a relentless pull that drags the viewer down right along with its avenger.
The film, from writers/directors Dusty Mancinelli and Madeleine Sims-Fewer (who also stars), is uncomfortably confidential right from the start. We’re riding with Miriam (Sims-Fewer) and her husband Caleb (Obi Abili) through stunning countryside to something of a family reunion. Nothing here is as peaceful as that sounds – Miriam and Caleb are cold and distant, and once they meet up with Miriam’s sister Greta (Anna Maguire) and brother-in-law Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe), the sisters’ warm greeting soon turns agitated and laden.
There’s a lot of messy history here, some that the film ultimately reveals, and some that continues to live in the ether after the final credits have played. Miriam is a bossy older sister, often referred to by their dad as Greta’s “white knight,” a seemingly heroic nickname that, after a while, feels like a pejorative from Greta. Greta and Miriam have known Dylan since high school – the sisters take turns sharing inside jokes and decades-old anecdotes with him while Caleb sits awkwardly apart. Caleb and Miriam do not touch each other, do not laugh at each other’s jokes; meanwhile, Miriam stares sullenly as Greta easily slips her hand into Dylan’s front pocket.
It’s all crumpled together with another timeline, one in which Miriam moves through the woods alone, arriving at a cabin with elaborate purpose. Her memories are bouncing all over the place, and after we see the devastating abuse that she’s lived through, we can understand how it’s twisted her thinking, scattered her memories. It’s jarring, and it’s meant to be jarring. Miriam’s been terribly betrayed by people she trusted, and as she devises her revenge, nearing closer and closer to the culmination of her plan, her reasoning becomes more fractured, not less.
Miriam is not a clear-cut character: not all white knight or victim or villain. She’s very human in that way. “Nobody’s simple,” Dylan reminds her as they drunkenly take turns confessing their selfishness by the fire. Violation is punctuated with scenes of predators and prey – a wolf attacking a rabbit in the woods, the dinner Dylan and Greta have hunted and cleaned, the spiders Caleb is exterminating. Miriam’s a vegetarian and can’t stand the sight of any of it; she traps a spider rather than kill it, even when everyone tells her it’s poisonous.
But in the months after her assault, Miriam becomes someone who is capable of heinous, brain-breaking violence. Violation never makes it seem easy on her; in an extended scene, Sims-Fewer vomits for almost a full minute, overcome with disgust at what she’s done. Later, in extreme close-up as Miriam prepares her hair to be hidden under a wig, she’s literally tying herself in knots. She seems to hate herself, hate every moment of her actions, but she never allows herself to believe she can stop.
Miriam’s assault is the sort that causes uncaring judges and school administrators to ask, “But is it rape rape?” The answer to that question, always, is yes, and here that’s true, too. The degree of Miriam’s assault is never in question, not by the film, not by Miriam herself. It’s the degree of her response that Violation asks us to examine. As Miriam’s undertaking of vengeance becomes more and more inhuman, Violation asks the single most difficult question all survivors must eventually ask ourselves: at what point are we perpetuating our own trauma by virtue of our reaction to it? Because at some point, the responsibility to heal belongs only to the survivor – no one else can do that for us. We can weaponize our pain and allow it to twist like a shard in our soul, corroding us and everyone around us, or we can learn to reconcile ourselves with it, to live with it.
Miriam makes her choice, and in spite of everything she’s been through, Violation doesn’t hesitate to scrutinize the consequences of that decision. In the end, Miriam’s not the wolf, and she's not the bunny. She’s the poisonous spider captured under that glass, capable of great harm and seeing no way out of a trap she’s only set for herself.
Violation is streaming on Shudder.