‘Violet’ Review: Olivia Munn Wrestles a Woman’s Deafening Self-Doubt in Daring Indie Drama

Justine Bateman imagines the turbulent inner life of a high-functioning Hollywood exec doing battle with her critical inner voices.

Courtesy of SXSW

It’s awfully crowded in Violet’s head. First there’s the voice, which sounds like a demeaning male bully, constantly telling Violet she’s worthless. When it speaks, the screen turns red and a loud electronic humming noise causes Violet’s ears to ring. Then there’s a second running commentary, this one silent and less sure of itself, appearing as loopy cursive text across the screen (e.g., “I feel like I don’t know who I am anymore”). Add to that her childhood memories, projected like 16mm film onto random surfaces, and it’s all but overwhelming — not just for Violet but for audiences of writer-director Justine Bateman’s “Violet” as well.

Violet describes this chorus of distractions as “the committee,” and for better or worse, Bateman has found a subjective way for us to experience them too — as in the confrontational opening montage, a whirlwind of car crashes, smashing glass, exploding appliances and dying animals. Bateman’s approach isn’t funny or cute, the way ’90s sitcom “Herman’s Head” treated its hero’s competing impulses, nor does it suggest a beautiful but neurotic brain, as Charlie Kaufman did when unleashing a stream of similar self-loathing in “Adaptation.” This is something far darker that must be dealt with.

Collectively, the negging voice, the subliminal images, the desperate dear-diary scrawl constitute an oppressive presence in what looks, from the outside at least, like a well-managed career as head of production for a respected Hollywood shingle. As embodied by Olivia Munn (building on the strength of her easily underestimated “The Newsroom” anchor), Violet projects discipline and success. She picks scripts that make money and win awards, and has no trouble scoring dates with studio execs — which seems to matter to Violet and her interior voice (supplied by Justin Theroux, who, like a good dominatrix, is fully committed to humiliating his host).

So why isn’t she happy? Perhaps a psychiatrist could define the condition responsible for these feelings of inadequacy raging inside her. But her situation is just as likely to be the result of how she was raised, the way she is treated by co-workers and partners, and the society that imposes its narrow-minded expectations on her behavior.

Uncomfortable but hardly unwelcome, Bateman’s at-times-suffocating debut feature deals with the gap between how its protagonist (and anyone who identifies) perceives herself and what the rest of the world sees. Like so many perfectionists, Violet is her own worst critic, over-performing in order to be taken seriously at work, where colleagues’ snide remarks seem to echo her insecurities. The fact we can see/hear what Violet is thinking makes this an unusually effective illustration of how microaggressions really land, causing macro damage, despite the poker face she puts on for her peers.

Violet envies those, like free-spirit bestie Lila (Erica Ash) and sexy, independent screenwriter friend Red (Luke Bracey), who don’t wrestle with the same anxieties. Violet’s been crashing at Red’s place lately, and though the voice has convinced her that dating him would be career suicide (he’s beneath her on the Hollywood food chain), the movie makes clear that he’s the Perfect Match. Bateman’s screenplay actually describes him as “handsome in that thrown-under-a-motorcycle kind of way” (we know because the page is flashed on-screen several times).

In his first scene, Red leans against the kitchen counter, triceps flexed, crotch thrust forward. The obliviously cocky character seems to have embraced the philosophy Violet will spend the movie figuring out for herself: that she deserves happiness, and that any haters (like her caustic aunt and brother back home) can hit the road. But it’s rough waiting for Violet to come around. As we attempt to juggle listening to one voice, reading another and making sense of the flood of memories that assail her, it’s hard not to marvel that Violet finds it possible to function at all.

Amid the noisy, high-concept assembly, Bateman hasn’t necessarily made clear what the competing forces in Violet’s head are meant to represent. (The on-screen scribblings read like missives from a drowning soul, while “the voice that tells you you’re a piece of shit,” as Violet calls it, seems to operate out of fear and conflict-avoidance — which isn’t always a bad thing.) To the extent that we all deal with self-doubts, the character serves as both a role model and a freaky, funhouse-mirror version of our own vulnerabilities, and her climactic act of liberation brings considerable uncertainty.

It’s one thing for Violet to stick up for herself, telling off a sexist boss (Dennis Boutsikaris) and unsupportive relatives. But in freeing Violet from the turmoil within, Bateman seems a little too comfortable with burning bridges, fire-bombing old relationships and disrespecting the parents who traumatized Violet in the first place. While catharsis can come at the snap of a finger, recovery is nearly always a far longer process, and this complicated character is anything but cured at the end. There’s bravery in Bateman’s willingness to explore this state of mind, but she rolls credits just as things are getting interesting: when Violet blocks out the voices and finally starts listening to herself.

‘Violet’ Review: Olivia Munn Wrestles a Woman’s Deafening Self-Doubt in Daring Indie Drama

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (online), Los Angeles, March 20, 2021. Running time: 92 MIN.

  • Production: A Section 5 production, in association with Loose Cannon Pictures. Producers: Justine Bateman, Michael D Jones, Larry Hummel, Matt Paul. Executive producers: Cassian Elwes, Jay Paul, Matt Lituchy, Rob Rubano, Jonathan Schurgin, Anders Liljeblad.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Justine Bateman. Camera: Mark Williams. Editor: Jay Friedkin. Music: Vum.
  • With: Olivia Munn, Luke Bracey, Justin Theroux, Bonnie Bedelia, Zach Gordon, Erica Ash, Rob Benedict.