Of all the subgenres in horror, few are as polarizing as the much maligned rape/revenge subgenre . Love it or hate it, it has it’s merits and some of these films are able to tackle an ugly and complex issue in new and thought provoking ways. Violation is one of those films.
Most rape/revenge stories rely on this tried and true formula: woman finds herself in a vulnerable place, woman is violently raped, woman rises from the ashes (sometimes literally), woman stalks her rapist(s), woman gets sweet, sweet revenge. The gorier, the better. For a lot of films, this works well. Depending upon the decade, the underlying social commentary changes, but for the most part, a victim of rape is somehow made whole again after exacting the revenge that they deem necessary. Be it Jennifer in I Spit On Your Grave, Madeline in Thriller: A Cruel Picture, John and Estelle Collingwood in The Last House on the Left or Mary in American Mary, everyone wants their pound of flesh, but what if your rapist is your sister’s husband? And what if your sister does not react the way you would hope her to when you tell her about the rape? Who is it that you really want revenge on and what would that revenge look like? Written and directed by the team of Dusty Mancinelli and Madeline Sims-Fewer, Violation brings up so many thorny issues that the film sticks with you for days as you wrap your mind around the fact that in the real world, nothing is cut and dry and every action comes with it’s own set of rights and wrongs. There are no sympathetic characters in Violation, but you still find yourself siding with a character one moment only to be against them the next. Human beings are messy, messy creatures and this movie captures all of that brilliantly.
From here on out, it will be spoilers galore. Please do not read any further if you have not seen the film. This is not a review so much as it is all of the ten thousand thoughts I had after viewing the film. There is so much to unpack and this was the best way to lay it all out and truly appreciate what the writers accomplished.
Violation is a study in the toxicity and insidiousness of anger and resentment that is never really allowed to breathe, but rather, simmers below the surface of politeness. Miriam (Sims-Fewer) and her husband Caleb arrive at her sister’s house already in a state of obvious acrimony, meanwhile, Greta and her husband Dylan seem to have a very loving and happy marriage. Through a nonlinear timeline, we learn that sisters Miriam and Greta are not close, but try very hard in between trading emotional barbs to at least be friendly with one another. Miriam and Dylan, on the other hand, have known each other for a very long time and seem to have a closeness that veers on the edge of inappropriate. As the two of them walk through the woods together, their conversation feels light and comfortable, but there is an undercurrent of a past flirtation that may have been felt more strongly by one than the other.
Sometimes the most seemingly banal conversations are the ones that hold the most weight. It’s in the dialogue that we can learn more about Miriam’s past and all of these innocuous moments of communication are where you will later understand each character’s personal motivations. There are a few tense moments between the sisters which, on the surface, look like normal sibling rivalry, but it’s where we learn that Miriam tends to do whatever she thinks is right when someone has wronged her or her sister. She sees herself as the savior for both of them, but Greta sees her as someone who is selfish and never takes into account anyone else’s feelings.
Miriam is the character that propels the story and she is an unreliable narrator to say the least. Couple this with flashbacks being interspersed in the current timeline of revenge and there is a lot to map out. There is certainly a lot of mental gymnastics involved in the viewing of Violation, but that’s part of why it works as well as it does. As we go through our days, we can easily be mentally and emotionally taken back to traumatic memories and that’s what the movie feels like: the haze of a mentally and emotionally unstable person.
The one thing in this movie that is absolutely not up for debate is the fact that Dylan rapes Miriam. They both view the events very differently, though, and this is where everything gets complicated. Dylan does the usual dick move and tries to put the blame on Miriam while they each engage in a game of chicken over who will use the word ‘rape’ first and after telling Greta what has happened, Greta also blames Miriam for the rape. Miriam does not receive kindness from her husband either. In a very bold move on the filmmakers part, we see that immediately after the rape, Miriam goes to Caleb and almost tries to force herself on him. Everyone deals with sexual assault differently and this was a very real and shocking thing to show.
As far as the revenge at the heart of all of this, those looking for something brutal will certainly get what they are after, but it may not be what you’re expecting. In what feels like the most claustrophobic lake house ever, Miriam lures Dylan with the promise of more sex and he is all too happy to show up. Unlike most rape/revenge films, it is Dylan who will be completely naked and vulnerable in every way while Miriam stays fully clothed and in charge of the situation. Jesse LaVercombe turns in an truly brave performance as Dylan. Initially, he seems so sweet and charming and even when he’s tied to a chair, you really believe that he believes he had consensual sex with Miriam. Dylan’s death is brutal because it feels real. This is not a showy, blood soaked gore fest. This is the long and exhausting process of actually killing another human being and it is rough. The thing is, Miriam really had this all planned out. Like, really, really planned out. Her attention to detail in body disposal makes you wonder if she has done it before or has she simply been obsessively plotting this for the last year? Either option is possible when you consider the fact that Miriam seems to find people disposable in general. Caleb conveniently disappears from the movie entirely after he doesn’t support her and we get the impression through flashbacks, that he is certainly not the first to be disposed of by her. In one of her intimate conversations with Dylan she had asked him if he thinks she’s a bad person. Miriam clearly comes with a long history of questionable behavior that even she, herself, is unsure of, so is murder actually that far out of left field for her?
Greta certainly has no real deep connection to her sister, but sees her as a person who manages to always paint herself as the victim when she’s’ actually the one victimizing everyone. This comment is easy to write off when you consider that Greta doesn’t believe Dylan raped Miriam, but then you see Miriam get her ultimate revenge on her sister. Miriam tells Greta of a dream that she had about her, but really, she is describing Dylan’s death. That is some straight up cold blooded behavior right there. And then the ice cream? I chuckled with delight at seeing all of those party guests eating the ice cream, but that is taking the adage that revenge is a dish best served cold to new heights.
Violation works because it makes you think. Horror is always the window to society’s soul and this is definitely a rape/revenge film for the #metoo times that we are living in. For all of her faults, Miriam is still just a human being who was let down by the people who are supposed to protect her and support her. Watching her go from cold blooded killer to emotionally triggered by a stranger’s outburst is confounding, but realistic. Nothing in Violation is black and white. It is as layered and complex as the myriad social constructs that we all acknowledge or choose to ignore. Like any rape/revenge film, it won’t be for everyone, but I have a deep respect for the way Mancinelli and Sims-Fewer brought so many tough topics to light.
Violation is currently streaming on Shudder