As far as debut features go, you don’t get many calling cards as unforgettably bold as Madeleine Sims-Fewer’s Violation. She writes, directs, and stars in this rape-revenge drama of an Old Testament intensity, and though there are a few stumbles here and there, this is thrillingly confident and brash filmmaking that both speaks powerfully to the present moment and promises great things to come from Sims-Fewer.
In front of the camera, Sims-Fewer plays Miriam, a troubled British woman in a distant marriage who heads to her sister Greta’s (Anna Maguire) cabin in the Canadian woods for a brief summer getaway. There’s tension in the air immediately, Miriam getting on rather too well with Greta’s husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe), while eerie camerawork and a profoundly disconcerting score set an ominous tone, suggesting something deeply wrong in the very fabric of the forest.
After some drunken fireside flirtation, Miriam and Dylan fall asleep at the edge of the woods but, as dawn breaks, Dylan rapes Miriam in her sleep. This trauma shatters Miriam, and the film’s timeline goes with her, zipping between the past and the future without warning as Miriam’s vengeance slowly but surely takes shape as both Dylan and Greta deny her version of events. When it eventually arrives, it does so with a shocking ferocity, Sims-Fewer and co-director Dusty Mancinelli never skimping on the grisly stuff.
It’s brutal, but this violence never feels gratuitous, even as Miriam’s actions start to descend into plain psychosis. Violation is an exploration of sexual assault and trauma that is very current, yes, but there’s also something far more ancient at play here, a great and terrible wrong being met by the sort of bloody overkill that defined the revenge stories of pagan myth.
Sims-Fewer is not interested in trying to impart a clear-cut, easily digestible moral lesson to her audience – Miriam herself is no great respecter of consent, whether she’s ignoring her husband’s sexual boundaries or escalating domestic disputes on behalf of women who neither want or need her help. Instead, she takes us on a chilling deep dive into the violence that revenge does on both parties – the toll the violence takes on Miriam even as she doles it out is immense, and Sims-Fewer’s lead performance is very impressive, keeping us invested when the character’s motivations become muddier and events strain credulity.
Violation was clearly made on a minuscule budget – there are only four characters and three locations – but it doesn’t let that get in the way of a very striking sense of style. Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli capture the Canadian woodlands in a similar way to how Panos Cosmatos handled the Pacific Northwest in Mandy, otherworldly colours bleeding into the environments and a dreamy atmosphere leaving you questioning exactly what is real. Violation is not on the same level as Cosmatos’s Nic Cage-starring masterpiece, but the ambitiousness of aiming for those same visual heights is commendable.
Violation is a very hard film to recommend, wildly explicit in both its sexuality and violence – though the central assault itself is covered with discretion, this choice makes it all the more claustrophobic and distressing – but for the strong of stomach, this is a unique and horrific vision of how trauma and gaslighting can break people. Modern and ancient all at once, Violation’s clammy terror will linger with you.