You know something terrible is going to happen when the early moments of a film greets you with an obvious reference to “The Shining” — in the case of the time-and-memory-twisting psychological horror “Violation,” the bird’s-eye view of a lone car, creeping ahead on a narrow road through dense trees, accompanied by a screechy score. What you won’t realize in the hair-raising feature debut by filmmaking duo Madeleine Sims-Fewer and Dusty Mancinelli is just how much worse things will turn out to be than what this signposting might prepare you for.
A chamber piece with the existential mood of Lars von Trier, as well as a trope-defying revenge thriller with a mounting sense of terror, the dismembering, blood-draining frights of “Violation” — from tense familial grudges to an awful case of sexual assault and gaslighting that leads to brutal vengeance — aren’t easy to shake or describe. Suffice it to say that among this year’s slim Midnight Madness pickings in the Toronto Film Festival line-up, “Violation” is perhaps the only film that made this virtually-attending critic crave the collective, strangely comforting sighs, screams and jumps of an anxious crowd in a packed theater, one that would perhaps notice the film’s few but decided nods to the controversial 1978 thriller “I Spit On Your Grave” through its stark differences in approach. There is, after all, safety in numbers.
Not for Miriam, it turns out. After mournful baroque strings of Pergolesi accompanies pastoral sounds and the image of an imposing wolf with its prey — a repeating, and admittedly on-the-nose metaphor for what’s to come — writer-directors Sims-Fewer (also in the role of Miriam) and Mancinelli introduce the viewer to her and spouse Caleb (Obi Abili) in the aforementioned car. The couple’s bickering and mutual discomfort suggests there is some sort of trouble in their marriage. Still, they make their way toward an isolated cabin deep in the weeds of the Quebec countryside, where Miriam’s tenacious sister Greta (Anna Maguire) happily lives with her confidently charming husband Dylan (Jesse LaVercombe). But as we would soon learn, this overdue reunion would be the last thing to help Miriam overcome her personal and marital troubles.
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In that regard, “Violation” is quick to signal that further distress is on the way for the young woman, when seemingly pleasant conversations between the two sisters turn into pressure-cooker exchanges of rivalry about their respective childhoods. A sense of Haneke-esque unsafeness and bitterness sinks into the atmosphere hanging over the quartet, also reminiscent of the acrimony felt in the recently released horror “The Rental,” where distrust among siblings was also a front-and-center theme. But despite that resemblance, “Violation” shows no interest in telling its story in a similarly conventional fashion, an ambition the filmmakers fulfill with some success through their nonlinear style, intricately assembled by editor Gabriella Wallace.
Honestly, it’s a bit confusing at first when sudden cuts occur between clusters of scenes that follow Miriam as she interacts with the rest of the group. Initially, these loosely chaptered installments, separated by cinematographer Adam Crosby’s brooding, often surreal nature shots of eerily dusky blues, don’t seem to follow any sort of chronology or logic. Slowly, however, the film reveals a method to its madness — one that’s perhaps a bit too laborious for its own good, too packed with heavy-handed visual symbols.
There are basically two interwoven timelines here separated by an unidentified number of days, as well as a shocking main event that helps the viewer piece the events together. The sisters both love each other, but are wary of one another too, with a resentful Greta often reminding Miriam her tendency to put her in a compromising situation when she insists on playing a hero. Meanwhile, Caleb — the one character the story somehow abandons — is unhappy in his cold, sexless marriage. Elsewhere, there seems to be some sort of energy or sexual chemistry between Miriam and Dylan. She actively fights it while Dylan, an easy chatterbox with an alarming interest in hunting, entertains the idea.
The gruesome details of the film’s deeply unsettling revenge sequence are best left unspoiled, although some necessary warnings around sisterly betrayal, rape and extreme, bloody body horror should be noted all the same. Though what’s provocative about “Violation” isn’t the presence of these triggers, but the way it handles them, knowing that real-life sexual perils are as likely to crop up within one’s close, trusted circle as they are in the company of strangers. Moreover, the film’s visual priorities decisively keep female exploitation at bay, an ugly cliché that habitually pollutes the rape-revenge subgenre which often falsely parades as feminist empowerment. Like Jennifer Kent’s masterful outlier “The Nightingale,” “Violation” sees sexual assault as an act of outermost humiliation, with its often-intimate camera insisting to focus on the victim’s out-of-body shame.
Sims-Fewer and Mancinelli are not nearly as sophisticated as Kent in their attempt to examine the cost of an eye-for-an-eye retribution. But through her performance of stupendous physical and emotional strength and vulnerability, Sims-Fewer wears her trauma so convincingly that by the end of it all, her pain sneaks up on you as if it’s your own.